The Myths of Vietnam—Number One
John T. Kuehn, grasshopper in training to Dr. James Willbanks (LTC, USA, retired)
There are so many of these that one hardly knows where to begin, especially since the literature is voluminous. I will start with one of the most glaring—that which surrounds General William Westmoreland, commander of the Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) during the critical years of compound-hybrid warfare in South Vietnam, when the US coalition--which included troops from South Korea and Australia as well as the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN)—fought both the People Liberation Armed Forces (the PLAF aka the Viet Cong) as well as the conventional People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN, aka the North Vietnamese Army—NVA). The acronyms already hint at the problem with this conflict.
Back to Westmoreland. The myth is that he chose the wrong strategy to address the multiple military problems he faced—which he boiled down to “bully boys” (the NVA regulars) and “termites” (the PLAF guerillas, who could also amalgamate into small conventional sized units of company and battalion size.) There is no need for me to make the argument to which I ascribe—that Westmoreland did indeed choose the correct strategy for military situation he faced at the time he was in command. The veteran Vietnam War historian Dale Andrade makes this case in his compelling argument, “Westmoreland Was Right.” Go read it.
The problem was not the strategy—which was the ways to the ends, a viable government of South Vietnam that could defend itself both internally and externally from the communists that besieged it. The problem was the means, and the key means was the United States’ (writ large) commitment to the strategy. In fact, the strategy itself was so poorly understood, both at the time, but also after the fact, that two very bright men, Andrew Krepinevich and Harry Summers, mischaracterized its elements in their major works on the war…to say nothing of the American people not understanding that Westmoreland’s goal was not initially victory, but a stalemate to prevent military defeat. He achieved that, ironically, after Tet in 1968.
Krepenevich argued that we fought the wrong kind of war, conventional instead of guerilla. Summers argued that we did not fight a war that was conventional enough, it was too limited, and should have included more operations directly against North Vietnam as well as against the NVA supply routes through Cambodia and Laos (that these existed has never been a matter of contention).
Westmoreland’s great error, and he admits as much in his mea culpa, A Solder Reports, was his failure to be more honest with the American people about the situation on the ground in Vietnam, especially his famous “cheerleading” tour of the United States in 1967, done at the behest of one of the the real villains, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (who’d already decided the war was lost when he commissioned the Pentagon Papers).
There are a lot of explosions here (passive voice intentional), and many collateral ones as well. Nothing to get the new year going like Vietnam.
One wonders if the American people are any better informed about the truth on the ground in Afghanistan, just ended? The information is out there (Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Report-SIGAR)-- not being informed is a matter of interest and curiosity. And there seems to be little of both when it comes to honest understanding by the vast reading public of past American wars. Don’ take my word for it, go read for yourself.
 Dale Andrade, “Westmoreland was Right: Learning the Wrong Lessons from the Vietnam War,” Small Wars & Insurgencies, 2, 2008: 145-75.