Posts Tagged ‘westmoreland’
Vietnam famously was the war in which newsmen were free to go wherever they wanted, write whatever they felt like and file it without interference. No one’s blue pencil or black marker marred the typescripts that were sent out over the wires. And this was a problem, or so critics have argued repeatedly. The unfettered press abused its privileges and consequently subverted the military campaign with its misguided—or simply wrong—reports.
General Westmoreland accused David Halberstam of harbouring a grudge against Westy’s predecessor as commander of American forces, Paul Harkins. (He wasn’t wrong: Halberstam regarded Harkins with undisguised contempt.) The American ambassador in the early 1960s, Frederick Nolting, couldn’t understand why François Sully of Newsweek focused on “the hole in the donut” in his reporting rather than on its fluffy surround. (“Because there is a hole in the donut, monsieur l’ambassadeur,” Sully said.) The influential Washington columnist, Joseph Alsop, called the Saigon-based correspondents “young crusaders.” He said they cobbled together their own version of events in the cushy confines of Saigon’s Caravelle Hotel. Marguerite Higgins, another veteran columnist, wrote that Halberstam and his colleagues wanted the Americans to lose in Vietnam simply to demonstrate that their wrongheaded interpretation of the war was correct. Their critics all agreed that the young reporters (who were not, in fact, especially young) were inadequately supervised. It’s just possible that some of their sneering seniors resented the freedoms the young whippersnappers enjoyed.
The judgment of top administration figures was no less harsh than that of their representatives and surrogates. President Kennedy leaned on Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, publisher of the New York Times, to have Halberstam reassigned. President Johnson often was enraged by what he saw on television and read in the press. He blew his top when CBS reporter Morley Safer filmed Marines setting fire to farmers’ huts at Can Me in August 1965. He lost it again when AP’s Peter Arnett described the dismay of leathernecks cut off from their cohorts in Operation Starlite. The pattern was repeated over and over. When Arnett quoted a major in the Mekong Delta saying that the town of Ben Tre had had to be destroyed in order to save it, a planeload of colonels was sent to find the officer who had uttered the words, with the presumed intention of making him eat them. (They didn’t and he didn’t.) Read the rest of this entry »
R.W. “Johnny” Apple was the New York Times’s Saigon bureau chief in February 1967 when he mischievously compared William C. Westmoreland to George B. McClellan. Westmoreland, the American general commanding U.S. forces in Vietnam was, in Apple’s opinion, overestimating the size of the communist armies that opposed him just as McClellan, as chief of Lincoln’s army early in the Civil War, overestimated the South’s military strength. For McClellan, the erroneous calculations were an excuse for inaction. For Westmoreland, they were the rationale for endless pleas for reinforcements. What Apple left unsaid was that Abraham Lincoln soon got fed up and fired McClellan. Westmoreland was tolerated by Lyndon Johnson for three years. And then he was kicked upstairs.
Apple’s sly allusion was about as tough as any published remark directed at Westmoreland by reporters during the Vietnam War. Historians also have been generous.
And yet, Westmoreland masterminded a strategy that killed as many civilians as it did guerrillas. He made refugees of at least a million of the people whose country he was supposed to be defending. He devastated large tracts of their land and left behind a legacy of poison and unexploded ordnance that still was claiming lives forty years later. The cost to America was not negligible either.
Fifty-eight thousand Americans died in Vietnam, roughly a third of them on Westmoreland’s watch. Three times as many were wounded. More tellingly, he took a professional, well-trained army and left it demoralized. The short tours of duty stipulated by the general meant that old mistakes were endlessly repeated: newly arrived officers were clueless; GIs counted the days as their tours wound down. Neither officers nor men were committed to seeing the job through. The thousands of operations they undertook in search of an elusive enemy underlined the futility of their presence. The obvious resentment of the indigenous population towards them undermined the GIs’ instinctive goodwill. All these factors wore away at discipline. Not only did Westmoreland fail to win the war, he made winning any war harder.
And yet correspondents covering the war rarely disparaged Westmoreland directly. The closest they came to criticism was, as in the case of Johnny Apple, to query the numbers. The body counts, crossover points and estimates of enemy strength all were scrutinized closely. Westmoreland was often accused of excessive optimism, almost never or lying. No one said in so many words that his strategy was misconceived even though it was.
The general wasn’t attacked. Instead, both he and the administration attacked the press. The reporters were accused of seeing only the hole in the donut, of failing to accentuate the positive (Johnny Mercer’s lyrics were invoked in a State Department memo) and of sabotaging the team. When it was all over, there were critics who claimed that journalists, not the military, had lost the war.
It’s by no means certain that the war was winnable. It did not have to be lost so bloodily or so badly. Westmoreland set the course that others followed. His mistakes survived him. And yet, he got off lightly because others took over from him and because potential critics were made to back off. History, meanwhile, tends to present the general in the image he fashioned in his memoir: not as a fool but as an earnest patriot who gave it his best shot.
More thoughts on the significance of the Tet Offensive…
A cliché of the Vietnam War is that it wasn’t about territory: The enemy was everywhere. There was no front line. The refrain was patently true – at least from the American point of view. Westmoreland measured allied progress in terms of dead bodies rather than land. His search-and-destroy operations routinely scoured the same regions over and over again. They racked up more or less big scores in terms of corpses but planted no flags.
But of course the war was about territory. The very definition of sovereignty begins with control of the land. Westmoreland’s emphasis on body counts diverted attention from the fact that, for millions of Vietnamese peasants, the Government of South Vietnam (GVN) was irrelevant. It was the Vietcong who recruited their children into the guerrilla forces, collected taxes and patrolled the roads.
The Americans and the GVN could sustain the fiction of sovereign control for as long as the cities were secure. The Tet Offensive blew that pretence to bits. Eight major cities, more than thirty provincial capitals and the administrative centres of more than sixty districts were either bombarded or occupied in the first week of February 1968. In Saigon itself, the bombing, mortaring, shooting and, ultimately, razing went on for two weeks (and then flared up again in “mini-Tet”). In Hue the fighting continued for almost a month. If neither Americans nor South Vietnamese were secure in the capital and a major city, what was left?
Westmoreland’s and the military’s defenders point out that the Communists were, in fact, pushed back from of the cities. They admit that the damage done to regain control was severe but argue that it hardly compares to the damage done in World War II to liberate parts of Europe. That’s all very well, but Europe before liberation had been occupied by the Germans for years. They were dug in and dislodged with difficulty. Once beaten, the allied line moved forward, drawing constantly closer to Berlin.
The difference, in Vietnam, is obvious. In repelling the Communists during the Tet Offensive, the Americans and their Vietnamese ally were destroying vast swathes of the urban centres they already owned – or so it was supposed. And when it was over, in rural regions, it was still the Communists who reigned.
James S. Robbins in his recent book, This Time We Win: Revisiting the Tet Offensive, writes that Robert McNamara, then the lame-duck defense secretary, broke down in a crucial meeting with President Johnson in 1968, “weeping uncontrollably,” before cursing the air war being conducted against North Vietnam. “This goddamned bombing campaign,” Robbins has McNamara saying, “it’s been worth nothing, they’ve dropped more bombs than in all of Europe in all of World War Two and it hasn’t done a fucking thing.”
The story, as Robbins tells it, with the secretary “weeping uncontrollably” and deploying the f-word, suggests that McNamara was incoherent and, by implication, beyond reason. But Robbins has embroidered on the original. He cites as his source a biography of Walt Rostow by David Milne (America’s Rasputin, 2008) and Milne, in turn, cites Clark Clifford, the man who replaced McNamara. Clifford’s version – and Clifford was in the room – is more generous. Read the rest of this entry »