Book Review: Westmoreland: The General Who Lost Vietnam


by Lewis Sorley

New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011. Pp. xix, 365. Maps, gloss., notes, biblio., index. $30.00. ISBN: 0547518269

In July of 1990 COL Harry Summers addressed the Corresponding Studies Class at the US Army War College.  Speaking of the research for his On Strategy: The Vietnam War in Context (1982), he told of interviewing GEN Harold K. Johnson (Chief of Staff of the Army, 1964-1968), who said “my failure to resign over the conduct of the Vietnam War is a moral lapse that will go with me to the grave”.

In Westmoreland, Sorely, the author of A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam (2007), Thunderbolt: General Creighton Abrams and the Army of His Times (2008),and works in Cold War history, gives one piece of the complex picture of what GEN Johnson was addressing.  The book begins with the career of GEN Westmoreland and his service in WWII and Korea.  Westmoreland’s  experience as an artillery officer in WWII and then as a commander of the 187th Regimental Combat Team (Airborne) was the base upon which his command in Vietnam was built, but hidden in this service were hints of a personality that would surface later in Vietnam.   Moving through the post Korea era on to Vietnam the story becomes that of a man who took the Vietnam War down the wrong path.
Westmoreland’s mission as Commander Military Assistance Command (MACV) was to build the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) to a point where it could ensure the security of the Republic of Vietnam.  Sorley points out the many ways in which Westmoreland failed to do this; leaving it to his successor Creighton Abrams to take on that mission. 

Westmoreland’s relation with the National Leadership in Washington is another facet of the war covered here.  The picture Sorley paints is one of a confused relationship at best.  President Johnson, SecDef McNamara, as well as the Chairman of the Joint Chief, it would seem, left Westmoreland to run things with minimal oversight.  When questions arose, Westmoreland’s Headquarters was more interested in how to fight bureaucratic battles than in answering the questions .

Westmoreland left Vietnam in 1972 to become Chairman of the Joint Chiefs.  His record in Vietnam came with him and with it an undercurrent of distrust in the Army’s Officer Corps.  Finishing his service as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Westmoreland retired to South Carolina and dabbled in politics.  In 1982, after a blistering CBSspecial, “The Uncounted
Enemy: A Vietnam Deception,”
on his handling of reporting the progress of the war to Washington, Westmoreland sued the network and Mike Wallace.  The lawsuit ended when Westmoreland settled for an apology from the network, which resolved nothing, though perhaps it was one of Westmoreland’s real victories, as Mike Wallace said that he went into depression during the trail. 

Sorely does a very good job of telling us what happened.  He does not tell us why it happened.  Was Westmoreland a prime example of the “Peter Principle,” of a man building up successes who was promoted into a job with duties he could not fulfill?  Was he too focused on conventional operations to understand the nature of the conflict?  With respect to building the ARVN, did Westmoreland’s South Carolinian back ground bring with it the undercurrent of racism that existed during his formative years?  Was Westmoreland the Wavell of South Vietnam? 

Fast forward to the Army War College in the late 1980s, COL Summers, then on the staff, received a letter of an apology from a student who had complained to the Commandant about Summer’s less than perfect personal appearance.  Summer’s replied to the student was that the choice was his, did he want people who just looked like generals running the army, citing Westmoreland, or did he want generals who were leaders, citing men who might not look the part, but were recognized as far better leaders, Creighton Abrams, Richard Cavazos, and others.

I would close with a disagreement with Sorely, over his title.  The failure in Vietnam was a national one, Westmoreland had a piece of it, but it was not his alone.  A more fitting title might perhaps be, Westmoreland, The General Who, with the Aid of Others, Lost the Vietnam War.


Our Reviewer :  Bill Gross is a retired Colonel of Engineers, with 32 years service both active and reserve.  A graduate of the Naval School of Diving and Salvage, and other military institutions through the Army War College, he commanded at all levels from Detachment through group, to include the 489 th Engineer Battalion and the 493rd Engineer Group.  Gross served on III Corps Staff Engineer Section for several years when its mission was to reinforce NATO's Northern Army Group.  His civilian career includes experience as civil engineer on the Alyeska Pipeline, offshore oil production platform design, port and harbor design, and later was Emergency Management Coordinator for Dallas.  Gross is presently  employed as Operations and Planning Officer, Defense Coordinating Element 6, US Army North as a Department of the Army civilian.  Gross, known as “Sapper”, plays a mean French horn and is an aficionado of certain rare d istilled spirits.

Reviewer: Bill Gross    

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