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Westmoreland: The General Who Lost Vietnam…
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Westmoreland: The General Who Lost Vietnam

by Lewis Sorley

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    Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam by H. R. McMaster (Shrike58)
    Shrike58: While Westmoreland deserves his share of blame, this book examines the high-strategic demands he was subjected to.
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I come away from this hard-headed critique of the career of William Westmoreland with almost as many questions as I arrived to it with. Part of the problem is that while Lewis Sorley's main finding is that the virtues that propelled Westmoreland to high command came to be dysfunctional when exercising theater command, I do have the sense (having read Samuel Zaffiri's biography of the man) that one is not given a strong enough sense of the man's virtues at lower command levels. It's as though Westmoreland's faults in high command are being anachronistically projected back to his early career.

Two, I'd like to know the contingencies that brought Westy to command at what became MACV. While his arrival predates the arrival of the "Big Unit" War and attrition as a strategy, my sense is not that he was a harbinger of that war. Could it be that the man was simply in Saigon to get some seasoning before being given command at the Army level in either NATO or Korea and, again, it was simply a fluke that an apostle of conventional warfare was in command at a time when the government in Saigon really began to lose it.

This then leads to the point that I'm not sure Sorley plays up enough, that Westy was squarely in the "American Way of War" that saw the road to victory as being closing with the enemy main force to inflict comprehensive defeat. It is likely that most American generals that could have held that position in 1965 would have come up with a similar operational prescription.

Three, while Westmoreland can't avoid blame for presiding over the failures of execution exposed by the Great Tet Offensive, it is also true that he provided the Johnson Administration what it wanted. While Sorley includes H.R. McMaster's "Dereliction of Duty" as a source (and which is an essential study to read), I'm not quite clear that he embraced it in terms of providing the Washington context to this period of the war.

Four, I think Sorley could have given a better sense of the command politics of the United States Army in this period, as the time that Westy was rising to high command was also the period when the dashing paratroop generals of World War II (Maxwell Taylor, Jim Gavin, Matt Ridgway, etc.) dominated the service. Westy certainly saw these men as the main chance, and did successfully court them as patrons. I suppose that this is a roundabout way of asking the question of just how did Westy manage to avoid War College in the first place, which would have either opened his eyes to a wider world or would have aborted his rise to theater command and then to being kicked upstairs to being service chief; the chapter on Westy's even more dysfunctional time as Army Chief of Staff is most damning.

Another question I come away with from this book is the whole question of Westmoreland's anti-intellectualism. Was this simply a question of the culture he grew up in (South Carolina in the shadow of the American Civil War) and the man's level of native intelligence, or was something more at work. I begin to suspect that Westmoreland labored under the burden of dyslexia or some other reading disability, and that the drive for apparent perfection was the reaction to this condition. It doesn't seem to be an issue that occurred to Sorley.

This then is an important book, and one that any student of the American involvement in Vietnam should read, but I suspect that it isn't the last word on William Westmoreland, at least in terms of examining the whole context of his career. I also actively dislike the subtitle, as whatever Westmoreland's failures it only serves to paint the man (and whatever the faults fairly depicted) as a convenient scapegoat. Many hands made light work of creating a failure. ( )
  Shrike58 | Apr 28, 2012 |
Very depressing! This is purported to be about CG in Viet Nam for for years. Although there is much about Westmoreland's professional qualifications, despite some "apparently" obvious issues, he was still given a 4th star and command. On the other hand, a book which supposed to be level handed, does not include his orders when taking command. Does Sorley even know what it was Westy was supposed to accomplish. There are numerous citations from others, some of which good, but this seems more like a book being written for the express purpose of dumping on someone. ( )
  DeaconBernie | Jan 25, 2012 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0547518269, Hardcover)

Amazon Exclusive: A Q&A with Author Lewis Sorley

Q: How can the loss of Vietnam be blamed on Westmoreland?

A: He served for four years as U.S. commander there during the crucial period of the buildup of American ground forces, a flood that eventually reached 543,400 due to Westmoreland’s repeated requests for more and more troops. Given a free hand in deciding how to conduct the war within South Vietnam, he chose to pursue an unavailing war of attrition, which failed miserably. Westmoreland thus squandered four years of support by Congress, much of the American people, and even the media.


Q: How did a man as limited as Westmoreland achieve such high rank and position?

A: Fueled by ambition, Westmoreland drove himself relentlessly. He was of impressive military mien, energetic, effective at self-promotion, and skillful in cultivating influential sponsors. From his earliest days of service he led his contemporaries, was admired and advanced by his seniors, and progressed rapidly upward. Westmoreland’s strengths eventually propelled him to a level beyond his understanding and abilities.

Q: What was Westmoreland’s approach as commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam?

A: Westmoreland decided to conduct a war of attrition in which the measure of merit would be body count, the number of enemy killed. His premise was that if he killed enough of their soldiers, the enemy would lose heart and cease its aggression against South Vietnam. He went about this primarily through the use of search and destroy tactics, often involving very large operations in the jungles near South Vietnam’s western borders with Laos and Cambodia.

Meanwhile he neglected other crucially important tasks, such as strengthening South Vietnam’s military forces and rooting out the covert infrastructure that enabled the enemy to use coercion and terror to dominate South Vietnam’s rural populace. He was successful in killing a large number of enemy troops, but this did not represent the progress he claimed; the communists simply replaced their losses and continued to fight. Westmoreland was on a treadmill.

Q: What are the sources for your account of Westmoreland’s life and career?

A: Westmoreland himself provided extensive—and revealing—archival material. His papers, on deposit at the University of South Carolina, run to many thousands of pages. I spent four months going through them.

I interviewed about 175 people who had known and served with Westmoreland over the years. One of the most important, and most helpful, was General Bruce Palmer Jr., with whom I spoke dozens of times. Having been Westmoreland’s West Point classmate, then having served under him in Vietnam and subsequently as his Vice Chief of Staff, General Palmer was an authoritative, sympathetic, and invaluable source of both factual information and sensitive insights.

Q: What do you hope will be the lasting impression of General Westmoreland?

A: It is not a happy story, but I believe it is an important, even essential, one. Unless and until we understand William Childs Westmoreland, we will never fully understand what happened to us in Vietnam, or why.

In the end, of course, this is the story of an officer whose strengths propelled him to a level of responsibility beyond his capacity. From early days prideful and image-conscious, Westmoreland developed into a man of incredible industry, driving himself to achieve, forever in a rush, with unbounded ambition and no apparent sense of personal limitations—doing it by the book, even though he hadn’t read the book or studied at any of the Army’s great schools. His ultimate failure would have earned him more sympathy, it seems certain, had he not personally been so fundamentally to blame by reason of his relentless self-promotion.

Those who have long been Westmoreland admirers and supporters may be offended by an account that, as they will view it, tarnishes his reputation. But many others, I believe, will welcome a factual, detailed, and well-documented explanation of how and why he failed so completely in his most important assignment; what that failure cost us as a nation; and, most important, what it cost the ill-fated South Vietnamese, who risked all and lost all.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:17:40 -0400)

An analysis of the integral role of General William Westmoreland in the Vietnam War traces his prestigious background and rise to the head of the war effort, contending that his failures to understand regional complexities and his loyalty to a flawed strategy were directly responsible for the war's outcome.… (more)

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