Vietnam Part VI
“Once the expenditure of effort exceeds the value
Of the political object, the object must be renounced.”
Karl von Klausewitz
He was born in 1914 to an upper middle-class family. Thus he was the youngest of the three men who guided Vietnam history in the 1960’s (Ho Chi Minh and Ngo Dinh Diem being the others). Like the other two he was an excellent student. He received numerous scholastic honors in high school and at West Point. Unlike Diem and Ho, he was never jailed or persecuted, did not suffer from jungle-induced diseases, and didn’t have to eliminate any rivals in his ascent to power. He fought in WW II and Korea. When Lyndon Johnson was looking for a general to head the US Armed Forces in Vietnam Robert McNamara, his defense secretary, told him that Westmoreland was the best man.
He faced a difficult situation. His troops were fighting North Vietnamese Army regulars, Viet Cong militia that was well trained and equipped by North Vietnam, Viet Cong “irregulars” who led double lives (lived and worked in South Vietnam), and innocent villagers who either sympathized with the VC or were forced to cooperate with them under penalty of severe retribution. It is safe to say that none of his soldiers could tell the difference between these opponents.
There was more. North Vietnam’s general (Giap) was not afraid to pursue a strategy of attrition, meaning that massive losses on the battlefield were not a political liability. Ho Chi Minh was quoted as saying that it was OK if he lost ten men for every American casualty that his troops induced, because Americans would eventually be unwilling to tolerate this ratio. He was right.
Even more complications. President Johnson and the legislature wanted a victory. The stalemate in Korea had left a bitter taste in American mouths. They wanted a surrender. At the same time, it was made clear to Westmoreland that he could not provoke China into joining the war. This meant that an invasion of North Vietnam was out of the question, although, as it happened later, selected bombings of strategic targets in the north were approved.
North Vietnam knew all of this. They decided to engage in a strategy that involved scattered guerrilla attacks with occasional terrorist incursions and infrequent full attacks. Westmoreland had to rely on using his superior technical and weapon capabilities. Aerial bombings, helicopter shootouts, and massive burning and poisoning of the vegetation were our means of attack. Battles were rare; when they happened the North Vietnamese suffered huge casualties. That did not matter: American public opinion wondered why these backward Asians kept fighting despite immense losses. As the American death and crippled toll mounted, people began to have reservations about the military’s capability to win this one.
To make matters more complicated, South Vietnamese leadership was a mess. Once Diem was murdered a dozen generals took turns staging coups against each other. Army morale was low; there were many desertions and American troops did not trust the South Vietnamese who were supposed to be fighting alongside them.
More Of our troops had to be called in. At their peak more than 500,000 Americans were stationed in Vietnam. It was a given that they had to do most or all of the fighting. It was enormously expensive to maintain this Army. Westmoreland had to convince the president and Congress to increase the amount of money appropriated to this effort.
Objectively he could not demonstrate any progress, yet he kept insisting that victory was just around the corner. He was itching for a pitched battle where he would have the advantage; a major defeat for the north would tip the financial scales in his favor. This is where the battle of Khe Sanh came in.
Khe Sanh was a Marine base 20 kilometers from the border with Laos. The North Vietnamese used to avoid the troops that guarded the border between north and south by sending soldiers and supplies through Laos and Cambodia, officially neutral countries. Americans built an air strip in Khe Sanh to serve as a home base for the bombers that pounded the famous Ho Chi Minh trail. There was significant disruption to the VC supply line. The Viet Cong surrounded Khe Sanh and began to tighten the noose around it.
Westmoreland knew that there was unusually heavy movement of troops and weapons down the Ho Chi Minh trail and headed towards Khe Sanh. He saw this as his chance. More troops moved into the base. Over a span of two months 75,000 tons of bombs were dropped on Laos and VC positions (20% of these did not explode; to this day these bombs remain there, in a country that never hurt us, where children can find them and accidentally blow themselves up. Yes; this has happened).
But Giap had other plans. The North Vietnamese power elite had given approval to a plan to attack all of the major South Vietnamese cities at the same time. Historians say that this is the reason that all of these troops were moving south; that Khe Sanh was a diversion meant to distract Westmoreland. Others say that Khe Sanh was a major objective.
This was early 1968 during the Tet holiday, the lunar New Year celebration that to this day is the most important of the year. Hundreds of thousands of Communist troops attacked Saigon, Hué, and other major cities. Fighting was savage and intense; house to house in many instances. The North Vietnamese were hoping that citizens of the south would rebel against their government and join them. That was a huge miscalculation.
To everyone’s surprise, South Vietnamese troops fought well, particularly in Hué. Americans were able to shed their surprise with remarkable speed. The north had to retreat from all of the sites they attacked. They lost tens of thousands of troops. Their military was in serious trouble. Ho Chi Minh was in poor health and no longer had the power that he used to wield. There was dissension among his followers.
Westmoreland had, despite his miscalculation, the victory that he wanted. But the American people had had enough. After hearing the “victory is just around the corner” speech for some time the public was stunned to find out that the North Vietnamese could mount such a significant attack right in the heart of cities that were supposed to be safe. They were no longer willing to believe the general when he said that this time for sure we had a big win. The expenditure that thousands of dead soldiers represented forced Congress to give up its political object.
Protests mounted. Lyndon Johnson decided not to run. Neither candidate for president was promising a quick victory. Congressional money slowed down. Troops were sent back home in increasing numbers.
Paradoxically, North Vietnam’s biggest defeat was their first step towards victory. Giap’s strategy of attrition bore fruit. It took seven more years, but the handwriting was on the wall.
Westmoreland had to survive a couple of ethics scandals. He interfered with the CIA’s reports on enemy troop strength (more on this later). The massacres of civilians that occurred in My Lai and other towns were initially kept from the public eye. Although Westmoreland was about the only leader who insisted on a full and impartial investigation, he decided to keep the results secret until he retired.
Five months after the Tet offensive Westmoreland was replaced as CO of the American forces. This was interpreted as a punishment even though this change had been planned before the Tet offensive began. He was named Army Chief of Staff. Later in life he tried to run for office (South Carolina governorship); he lost. He died of Alzheimer’s in 2005.
Another brilliant man whose life was determined by events that he could not control. Another soul who did not handle the power given to him well. Hundreds of thousands of people dead and a country in ruins because three very smart and probably very nice people could not compromise.
When will we ever learn?