William Westmoreland (1914-2005)
Photo by Larry Engelmann
Let History Take It's Course
I retired from the Army in the summer of 1972. And about that time I wrote an editorial article for the New York Times--an article I decided not to publish. I wrote that an early peace in Indochina was merely an illusion and that a viable cease-fire in Vietnam was not a realistic prospect.
As a matter of courtesy, I sent a preliminary copy of the article to the State Department and I got a note back from Henry Kissinger, through an intermediary, stating that they would just as soon that I not put forth my thesis in The Times. So I didn't.
So, the Paris Agreement was signed and soon after that Congress passed the Case-Church Amendment. By the end of the summer of 1973 I thought it was virtually impossible for South Vietnam to survive. How in the heck could they? Napoleon wrote that on the battlefield, morale is to materiel as three to one. And sometimes it is even more important--four to one or five to one. And Congress was cutting into both the morale and the materiel of the South Vietnamese.
I talked with President Gerald Ford about this problem. But he told me there was nothing he could do about it. He said he just did not have the political clout to get Congress to reconsider the Case-Church Amendment.
Then in early 1975 the North Vietnamese seized all of Phuoc Long province, in violation of the Paris Agreement and we did nothing about it. In March they attacked Banmethuot and, once again, we did nothing. They decided to violate the Paris Agreement because they clearly had nothing to fear from us.
I was just sick about what was happening. My memory of those days, though, is not as sharp as it might be because I had suffered a heart attack and I was in the hospital for six weeks. I was aware of what was happening. And there was nothing I could do about it. Congress had tied our hands. I was disconcerted and very deeply depressed by the situation.
You should remember that militarily we succeeded in Vietnam. We won every engagement we were involved in out there. As the senior commander in Vietnam, I was aware of the potency of public opinion--and I worried about it. I told Robert McNamara, the secretary of defense, in a private session in the spring of 1964, "This is going to be a long, drawn-out war the way it's being fought. And getting resources in Washington is already like pulling teeth. The thing that is worrying me," I advised him, "is the staying power of the American public."
Unfortunately, the staying power of the American public had limits when it came to Vietnam. The anti-war movement was an important factor undermining public support.
There were, of course, a large number of factors involved in the appearance and persistence of the antiwar movement. If you look at the cycles of opinion on the campuses of this country, you will find that there has been over the years an inevitable swing toward pacifism and then away from it again and then back to it again. It happened just before our entry into World War II. I know that because I was a cadet at West Point and we were not very popular among other student groups. The coeds at Vassar demonstrated against the military when I was a cadet. If it had not been for the attack on Pearl Harbor, we would have had the same phenomenon on college campuses that we observed during the Vietnam war.
The United States initiated conscription before the attack on Pearl Harbor, and it was very unpopular on the campuses and in the body politic. When the draft bill came up for renewal in Congress, it passed by one vote. One vote! That was only a short time before the attack on Pearl Harbor.
The peace movement in the 1960s in this country had many of the same ingredients as the peace movement in the 1930s before Pearl Harbor. What was new about the situation was that the Vietnam war was an undeclared war.
When we declared war after the attack on Pearl Harbor those who conducted themselves in what was considered an unpatriotic or treasonous way were ut in jail. But during the Vietnam war, it was an undeclared war, the government had no authority to prosecute those whose actions at other times would have landed them in jail.
My whole attitude, really, was just to ignore the protestors. The antiwar movement did, however, have an impact on what we were doing in Vietnam. That impact was related to the news correspondents in the field and the editors in this country.
We had correspondents in World War II, but they were on our team. We knew they were on our team. In Vietnam I had any number of officers and men complain to me that they thought the media were against them.
I know of one story that they should have reported and they did not. I was in Vietnam for 4½ years and during that time there was a 100 percent turnover in my command four times. Now can you imagine something like General Motors having its entire work force turn over completely every 12 months? I don't think I've ever mentioned that to anybody before. And I never sought credit for commanding an organization with a turnover like that. But when you consider an organization as big and as complex as the Army in Vietnam, with all of the factors involved and all of the complications and complexities, can you imagine getting a job done in any way with a 100 percent turnover every year?
There were two distinct worlds coexisting at that time. Our perspective on the battlefield in Vietnam represented one world. And in that world we had our hearts in what we were doing. During most of the 4½ years that I was in Vietnam, the consensus of attitudes among the advisers and the officers and the men was that they felt they were crusaders. They felt that they were saving a small country that was being attacked subversively and outwardly by the communist North. And they had a sort of missionary zeal, many of them, particularly those who worked with the Vietnamese in trying to improve the Vietnamese way of life and introduce democratic principles into that society.
I mean those men felt like missionaries. They did. I'm not saying that all of the infantry soldiers on the front lines necessarily felt that way--but many of them did. The men who had contact with the South Vietnamese and who worked with them, though, did have that zeal. They believed in what they were doing and they put everything they had into their work
Back here in the United States, it was a different world, however. The average American didn't really know much about Vietnam or what was going on there. Many people didn't even know where Vietnam was: They couldn't find it on a map and they could have cared less. And that brings us to another facet of this whole complex story. What were the American people actually told in order to justify our commitment in South Vietnam?
The Truman Doctrine of 1947 said, in essence, that we are not going to allow a communist country to intimidate a neighboring country that wants no part of communist domination. The doctrine was followed by John Foster Dulles and Dwight D. Eisenhower's containment policy, a policy associated with Mutually Assured Destruction and Massive Retaliation when it came to dealing militarily with communist aggression.
Then along came John Kennedy and he thought that Eisenhower had neglected the Army and, at the same time, had put too much emphasis on conventional warfare. And he thought Eisenhower had done an injustice to the Army. So Kennedy increased the Army's budget and sponsored the Green Berets. Additionally, the small-war thesis was given great visibility by Maxwell Taylor and Henry Kissinger, while Mutually Assured Destruction and Massive Retaliation were downplayed.
The small-war theory held that if you had a small war, you could stamp it out before it expanded into a bigger war and a nuclear confrontation. The thing to do, it was said, was to stop war at its source through conventional means to prevent it from expanding. If war expanded, unchecked then there would be a nuclear disaster, inevitably.
Now Kennedy, in his inaugural address in 1961, said that we would pay any price and bear any burden in supporting our friends and opposing our foes for the survival and success of liberty. That is an emotional thesis. That emotional thesis became a real commitment when Kennedy took 16,000 American soldiers and helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft into Vietnam. In doing that he was carrying out his campaign promise to bear the burden and pay the price for the success of liberty.
You never heard anything about the strategic aspects of the program. And I'm not quite sure why. The explanation given at the time for why we were in Vietnam were mostly ideological dreams. Our interest in Southeast Asia, however, was based upon very real strategic considerations.
So just what were those strategic considerations? Well, the first one was simply control. If we could not stop the spread of communism, which was then a very dynamic state, then Southeast Asia would inevitably fall and the so-called "domino theory" would have operated. Eisenhower was the first president to describe the domino theory--the fall of countries in Southeast Asia to communism just like dominoes falling over. And the first thing that would have happened in that situation was that the whole area and the vast populace of that area would be under communist control and could then be mobilized for communist purposes.
In addition to that, there was the oil of Indonesia and the tin of Malaysia. Most important of all, was the Malacca Straits, the waterway between the South Pacific and the Indian Ocean. If that area fell under the control of a hostile power, then we would have to go thousands of miles out of our way to get to the Indian Ocean.
What happened, in the end, was that we lost Indochina to the communists. But we did not lose all of Southeast Asia to them. Southeast Asia south of Indochina is still a part of the free world.
The leaders of that part of the world, leaders like Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, will tell you today that by virtue of our holding the line in Vietnam for 10 years, we gave them 10 years to develop their own resistance to communism-- 10 years to develop their own confidence in running their own affairs and developing their economies. They had all been colonies of the West--with the exception of Thailand, of course--and they had to develop their infrastructures, their economies and their abilities to resist communist pressures. And they will tell you now that if we had not stood and fought in Vietnam--if we had not drawn the line right there--then the dynamics of communism would have swept throughout the area. Now I would remind you that the Indonesians threw out the Russians in 1966. And they will tell you that they never would have dared to do that if we had not taken our stand in Vietnam.
Something very important was accomplished by our commitment in Vietnam. We saved Southeast Asia south of Indochina, and we saved Thailand and we might have saved South Vietnam, if we could have come to an agreement in Paris that could have been supported and sustained. To do that we would have had to have a military presence in that part of the world right down to today.
I will tell you just what that presence would have to be: First, we would have to have not only a Marine division in Okinawa, but an Army division closer than Hawaii. We would have to maintain a carrier off the coast of South Vietnam. We would have to have B52s at U Tapao in Thailand and maybe a few squadrons of fighters in Nakhon Phanom in Thailand. We would have to keep American advisers there with communications links to the South Vietnamese Army, to bring our fire power to bear if it was needed.
Now that would have been expensive. We would have had to pay the price and to bear the burden in order to enforce any effective peace accords. But we were not willing to pay that price and bear that burden. We found -- and our allies found -- that there were limits to the promises of Kennedy and the American people.
When the soldiers came home from Vietnam--after paying that price and bearing that burden--there were no parades and no celebrations and no thank-yous for them. So they built the Vietnam memorial for themselves--the boys did. And I was there for the dedication of the memorial in November, 1982.
The building of that memorial was a turning point in the attitudes of the veterans toward themselves and in the attitude of the American public toward them. They converged on Washington in November of 1982 and they had a welcome home for themselves--because no one else had done it for them. And then they put together a parade in honor of themselves--because no one else had done it for them. They built their memorial without asking Congress for a dime. They dedicated it to the dead without asking for Congress to help. That sent a message.
The memorial is a masterpiece; it's fitting, too. The names of the dead are listed there, chronologically. Just the names.
People always ask me today how I want to be remembered. I'd like to let history take its course. I don't know what it will say about me, but I hope that historians will take note of the last sentence I wrote in my autobiography: "As a soldier prays for peace, he must be prepared to cope with the hardships of war and bear its scars."
I bear the scars.