"American dog soldiers in past wars had come home together in troopships and had time en route to sort things out among themselves to swap stories and discover that no one of them was alone in his anxieties or his guilts. But the one year rotation policy in Vietnam meant they came out singly from the war to The World without company or time in which to decompress. Fewer than seventy-two hours passed between ... departure from the jungle and ... arrival in ... front parlor .... The Army [gave] ... a week to acclimate to the heat in Vietnam and not even three days to readjust to the alien psychic climate awaiting ... back home." --- Peter Goldman & Tony Fuller, Charlie Company: What Vietnam Did to Us, 1983

As I Saw It And Now See It:
A Perspective On America's Unique Experience In Vietnam
By General William C. Westmoreland, USA (Retired)

The war in Vietnam was a traumatic experience for our country. It was a war so complex that few understood it. It is still a confused issue, but is becoming less so. Based on my knowledge and experience as COMUSMACV (Commander, United States Military Assistance Command Vietnam) from early 1964 to mid-1968 and as Army Chief of Staff and member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) from 1968 to 1972 as well as my subsequent reflections and analyses, I will try to untangle that knot of confusion and misunderstanding.

First one must understand that the Vietnam War, like all wars, was first and foremost a political act. Its genesis was the 1947 "Truman Doctrine" where President Harry S Truman pledged us to the unconditional support of "free people who are resisting attempted subjugation by minorities or by outside pressure." The Congress, representing the people of the United States, approved this doctrine by an overwhelming majority.

In 1950, in accordance with that doctrine, President Truman sent a military mission to Saigon. Later, President Dwight D. Eisenhower reaffirmed Truman's actions and emphasized a policy of "containment" of Communist expansion. In 1956, then Senator John F. Kennedy stated that "the cornerstone of the Free World is Southeast Asia." ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (the Philippines, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand) is an area rich in resources and in control of vital sea routes. Also part of Southeast Asia is Indochina (Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam) which is a "buffer" region between Southeast Asia and China.

Elected to the presidency in 1960, Kennedy set the tone of his administration in his inaugural address when he pledged our nation "to bear any burden, meet any hardship, sup-port any friend, and oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty."

And these were more than mere words. After his verbal confrontation with the Soviet Union's Chairman Nikita Khrushchev in 1961, Kennedy repeatedly emphasized, "We have a problem in making our power credible, and Vietnam looks like the place."

During the Kennedy administration, American presence in Vietnam was dramatically increased from a total of some 900 U S. military personnel in November 1960 to some 16.000 by 1963. Not only did President Kennedy substantially increase the number of U.S advisers, he also dispatched to South Vietnam U.S. Army "Green Beret" Special Forces, American-manned helicopters and U.S. tactical aircraft.

In his zeal, the young president made a grievous mistake in assenting to the overthrow of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963. In my view, that action morally locked us in Vietnam. If it had not been for our involvement in the overthrow of President Diem, we could perhaps have gracefully withdrawn our support when South Vietnam's lack of unity and leadership became apparent. But that was not to be. Twenty days after President Diem was overthrown and assassinated, President Kennedy himself was assassinated and President Lyndon Baines Johnson inherited the problem.

Mr. Johnson was obsessed with his "Great Society" programs and, in the hope that the war would somehow go away, expanded our military efforts in South Vietnam. But there was no attempt to mobilize public support or to stir up the war effort. No one "bore a burden, met a hardship" except those on the battlefield.

In the spring of 1964, I had a private talk in Saigon with Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara. I warned him that it would probably be a long war that would challenge public support. The Secretary did not reply. Unfortunately, my prediction proved to be all too correct, for in the long run public support proved to be our Achilles' heel.

There was no question about our overall objective — a free and independent South Vietnam. That was bipartisan. But the strategy that emerged was based on wishful thinking and faulty assumptions, particularly as to the nature of the threat and the character of the leadership in Hanoi.

The conventional wisdom in Washington which unwittingly mirrored the deceptive Communist propaganda line on the nature of the war, was that the threat was a home grown Communist insurgency supported by guerrillas. The counter to that threat was pacification. Indeed, the Viet Cong internal threat was a very important element but it was not the overriding consideration.

South Vietnam was not to be conquered by the guerrilla. It was to be conquered by the North Vietnamese Army. But our policies and strategies formulated in Washington never focused on that threat. The objective of both of our political parties here at home was to defeat aggression in the South and to bring the enemy to the conference table, not to conquer North Vietnam. President Johnson's first official policy statement was that we would not geographically expand the war. Militarily, that boxed us in.

The will and toughness of the leadership in Hanoi was greater than expected. The bombing campaign directed from Honolulu by my military boss, the able Admiral U.S. Grant Sharp, the Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Command, was intended to break that will, but political restraint on the exercise of our capacity was too great, and was only lifted in 1972 — four years too late.

These political constraints on the exercise of military power were based on several considerations. First was the fear of bringing the Chinese army to the battlefield. Influenced by our Korean War experience, our political leaders recalled General Douglas MacArthur's move to the Yalu River along the Chinese border. The resulting massive intervention of the Chinese Communist armies forced us back south of the 38th parallel with great losses.

In the Korean War, the enemy was reportedly forced to agree to the Korean Armistice Agreement of 1953 by President Eisenhower's alleged diplomatically delivered threat to use nuclear weapons. At that time, the enemy had no counter to that threat. In Vietnam, facing a nuclear-armed China and Russia, our leadership had no such leverage, either physically or psychologically.

Then there was the fear of escalating the war and expanding it geographically thereby involving other countries in the fighting and extending the battle to the seas. It was a fear not shared with our enemies, who from the beginning, as they had made clear, were waging not the "Vietnam War" but the "Second Indochina War."

Our fear of an expanded war was assuaged by faith in Averill Harriman, a former ambassador to Moscow, who presumably had influence with the leadership there. This led to wishful thinking by our policymakers that the western border of South Vietnam adjoining Laos and Cambodia could be protected by the Geneva Accords of 1954 and by the Geneva Agreement on Laos in 1964.

This erroneous assumption [see the excellent analysis by the State Department's Norman Hannah, The Key to Failure: Laos and the Vietnam War (Lanham, Md.: Madison Books, 1987)] resulted in an open hostile flank of more than 700 miles on the Vietnam battlefield, and the enemy's access to resupply routes not only along the Ho Chi Minh trail, that ran through the Laotian panhandle and Cambodia, but also to their use of the port of Sihanoukville in Cambodia. I told President Johnson at a meeting in Guam in March of 1967 that if the flow of supplies to the enemy through the Laotian panhandle was not stopped -- a problem growing directly from Ambassador Harriman's “diplomacy”-- that the war could go on indefinitely.

Yet another constraint was the desire to reduce the cost of the war, a constraint that proved decisive in the war's final months. Using the budget as the pretext, the Case-Church Amendment to the Fiscal Year 1974 Appropriations Act, named after its anti-Vietnam War sponsors Senators Clifford Case of New Jersey and Frank Church of Idaho (both, incidentally, subsequently turned out of office by the American people), prohibited any funds whatsoever "to finance directly or indirectly combat activities by U.S military forces in or over or from off the shore of North Vietnam, South Vietnam, Laos or Cambodia."

That was an unambiguous message to Hanoi that it could break the Paris Peace Accords and we would not react, a repudiation of President Richard Nixon's earlier guarantees to South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu that the United States would ensure the Peace Accords be honored. Then, in the face of the 1975 North Vietnamese massive cross-border invasion of South Vietnam, we were hamstrung by Congressional action. Cut off from its erstwhile ally, South Vietnam collapsed.

Finally, there was a fear of arousing further the well-organized and growing anti-Vietnam War movement at home and abroad. This movement was fueled by several factors. First, Vietnam was an undeclared war, which made it impossible under the law to restrain those like Jane Fonda, Ramsey Clark and others who traveled to Hanoi and intentionally or not, gave aid and comfort to the enemy and distress to our prisoners of war. Then there was the policy of the political administration to play the war low key, a policy that confused the American people who saw war through the lens of World War II. And, unlike World War II, the lack of an apparent geographical objective led to the perplexing and frustrating fact that the war could not be followed on a map.

Add to this the policy of deferring college students from the draft, which destabilized the campuses and developed a psychological atmosphere that played into the hands of the anti-Vietnam War faction. And -- unlike World War II and Korea -- there was no media censorship. In the world's first TV war, some journalists reported irresponsibly.

Certain TV personalities had more influence on the public than informed and responsible senior public officials. President Johnson stated that when he lost Walter Cronkite he lost Middle America. What a frightening realization!

When it came to public support the final straws that led to its collapse included the enemy's Tet Offensive of 1968, which was not seen for what it was (like the Battle of the Bulge in World War II, a last gasp by an enemy on the verge of defeat) but instead as evidence that we were losing. Then there was President Johnson's March 31, 1968, announcement that he would not run for re-election followed by the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King less than a week later on April 4, which threw the nation into turmoil, and the Watergate episode that destroyed the Nixon presidency. We had succeeded in paralyzing ourselves.

As General Van Tien Dung. who led the final 1975 blitzkrieg that overran South Vietnam, told Mr. Cronkite, a TV personality, some years later: "Our war was an all out war. Victory was measured politically, diplomatically as well as militarily. Our objective was to defeat the will of the United States administration." And, indeed, that is exactly what they did. The United States was defeated psychologically, politically and diplomatically by a clever enemy. It was not defeated on the military battlefield. Since war is fundamentally a political act, some may say that those facts are immaterial. But they are not immaterial to the warriors of that unpopular war.

The American people should -- and. I believe, at long last do now appreciate the excellent battlefield performance of the Vietnam veterans and understand that it was not they who failed to make good our national commitment to the people of South Vietnam. I was honored to have had such fine young men and women under my command and I believe strongly that the United States can take great pride in those who answered their country's call during the war.

Ninety-seven percent of Vietnam veterans were discharged under honorable conditions. Two-thirds of those who fought in Vietnam were enlisted volunteers (in World War II. two-thirds were draftees). The average age of the World War II soldier was 26 years; the average age of the Vietnam soldier was under 19. The war was a heavy psychological burden for such young people.

In the aftermath of Vietnam, we heard so much about the small percentage affected by PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) that the man on the street had been given the impression that most Vietnam veterans are criminals or psychiatric patients.

But the fact is, according to the Veterans Administration and the Federal Bureau of Prisons, fewer Vietnam veterans are in jail than their non-veteran counterparts – only one-half of 1 percent of Vietnam veterans have been jailed for a crime – and there is no difference in drug usage between Vietnam veterans and those of their age group who did not serve. Further, the percentage of psychologically affected veterans does not vary greatly from that experience after other wars.

The overwhelming majority of forces and U.S. Government and contract civilians in Vietnam served with bravery, dedication and pride According to a 1980 Harris survey, 91 percent of Vietnam veterans said they are glad they served. Two-thirds said they would serve again, even knowing the ultimate fate of South Vietnam

To sum up, there was a pattern of conflicting interests in our society relating to the war in Vietnam. First there was the ideological dimension. America as the champion of freedom and self-determination got us involved but, once committed, ideology recoiled in horror from the cost involved. Second, with politics no longer stopping at the water's edge, the partisan jostling of the political party out of power with the party in power tended to confuse issues in the public mind. The lack of a unifying declaration of war was telling. Third, the decisiveness and the will of the president, and hence the nation, collapsed at precisely the critical time when the enemy was most vulnerable in the aftermath of his failed 1968 Tet Offensive. Finally, our psychological defenses failed. Dissenting elements in our society, aided and abetted by foreign propaganda, were given inordinate visibility.

But now, 15 years since the fall of Saigon, the global perspective reveals a positive picture as well. John F. Kennedy's caution of 1956 comes to mind: "Southeast Asia is the keystone of the Free World." Why is it the keystone? Not only because that area possesses many strategic materials -- particularly rubber, tin and great quantities of oil – but it controls the sea and air routes to the Indian Ocean. Without a costly military force on the ground, as we have had for 37 years in Korea, the expansion of Communism has been blocked by circumstances involving little cost to the U.S. and the Free World in recent years, all of which has been in our national interests.

The 10 years that our military efforts blocked the flow of Communism were significant. We gave those countries time to mature, to gain confidence in running their own affairs and to improve their economies. All are thankful to America.

Meanwhile, the reality of life in the "buffer" states of Indochina has been exposed by the boat people, the tragedy of the Cambodian holocaust and the ineptness of the leadership in Hanoi. Such developments have certainly had significant influence on the apparent disintegration of the Communist world. As history unfolds, it is apparent that America's involvement in Indochina was not in vain.

This article originally appeared in the February 1990 issue of Vietnam Magazine.


"Americans, who love a winner, detest thinking of themselves as losers, and they saw themselves distinctly as losers after [Vietnam]. Metaphysically, they may have thought that if America was a loser, God's grace had been withdrawn, or possibly was never there; the entire American idea turned into a fraud." --- Time, January 11, 1988