Interview with General William Westmoreland 12-5-1983

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Interview with General William Westmoreland 12-5-1983
Westmoreland, William ( Interviewee )
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FP 59
Interviewee: Dr. Michael Gannon
Interviewer: Gen. William C. Westmoreland
Date: December 5, 1983

G: General Westmoreland is a native South Carolinian who earned an appointment
to the United States military academy at Westpoint. He earned the rank there of
first captain of his class and thus joined very select company that includes Robert
E. Lee, John J. Pershing and Douglas MacArthur. In the second World War he
earned battle ribbons in North Africa, Sicily, France and Germany. After the war
he held a number of additional commands including that of a paratrooper
in Korea in 1952 and 1953. He also served as an instructor at the Command
General Staff School at Leavenworth and the United States Army War College at
Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania. HE took course himself including a graduate
course at Harvard University. For three years he was superintendent of the
United States military academy at Westpoint and in June of 1964, he took
command of USMACV (United States Military Assistance Command Vietnam)
where within the space of four years time, he put together an American field
army of half a million men. It was possibly the best equipped, the most mobile
and highest firepower army ever put together under any flag. Time Magazine
named him "Man of the Year." He addressed a joint session of Congress and in
1968 he returned home to the United States to end his military career in the
highest office of his service, that of Chief of Staff, United States Army. He retired
from military service in 1972 and resides today in his home state of South
Carolina. A conversation with General William Westmoreland when I return in a
moment. General Westmoreland welcome to "Conversation" and welcome to the
University of Florida.

W: It is a pleasure to be here.

G: It is good to have you. As I had the chance to say before we went on the air, I
met you at the Army War College in 1971 or 1972 and you look no different
today. I would hope you could say the same about me. It is good having you
here on our campus and I would like to have the chance to talk with you a little bit
about strategy conducted by the United States forces under your command in
Vietnam in the years when you were commanding officer of all our forces there
and not only our forces but a multi-national force. As a matter of fact, I believe
the multi-national force under your command was larger than that which served
in Korea. Is that correct, would you say that?

W: Probably but technically it was not under my command. They were on the
battlefield and certainly I coordinated their efforts.

G: I have a book in hand entitled, On Strategy: The Vietnam War In Context. It is
written by Colonel Harry G. Summers Jr., an instructor at the Army War College,

FP 5
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Colonel of Infantry. I would like to read a couple of sentences from his opening
paragraph and ask your reaction. He said, "one of the most frustrating aspects of
the Vietnam War, from the Army's point of view, is that as far as logistics and
tactics were concerned, we succeeded in everything we set out to do. On the
battlefield itself the Army was unbeatable. In engagement after engagement, the
forces of the Vietcong and of then North Vietnamese Army were turned back with
terrible loses. Yet in the end it was North Vietnam, not the United States, that
emerged victorious. How could we have succeeded so well, yet failed so
miserably?" First of all do you agree with his premise?

W: I agree with the premise.

G: What happened that caused this anomaly that we succeeded so well in every
major battle we fought and yet did not win the final victory?

W: War became progressive and later on more unpopular as it was allowed to drag
on and on and on and the default is a political one. It was not a military one, it
was a political default. As you well appreciate and I think many thoughtful people
do, the President of the United States is the Commander-in-Chief and the
strategy of the war is set by political authority and this is appropriate, with the
close advice of the military, specifically the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The war started
off as a war as it was indeed but nevertheless initiated by the in
Hanoi. It became necessary to keep South Vietnam from being overrun by the
guerrillas and later by the regular forces of North Vietnam. Insufficient attention
was given to the Hanoi regime that prosecuted the war from the beginning.
Colonel Summers' thesis, I think a valid one, that more attention should have
been given to the bombing campaign against North Vietnam and he even
suggests that there should be some invasions of North Vietnam. Of course, as
far as politics is concerned, politics controls everything in our society in the
following analysis: the president has to deal with the of the possible.
Even if President Johnson had wanted to take the war to Vietnam, whether if he
would have gotten by with it politically is questionable.

G: Colonel Summers advances the plan that was put forward by one of your deputy
commanders, General Bruce Palmer Jr., namely that U.S. forces should have
been used to penetrate the DMZ and then cut across Laos to Thailand and thus
seal off totally South Vietnam from the North Vietnamese Army. And with the
NVA neutralized, then the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) could be
used to root out the insurgents. What do you think of that thesis? Did you ever
consider that seriously?

FP 5
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W: Well, Palmer worked for me and he developed a plan based on my precise
directions and the guidelines that I put forth. I had three plans to go into Laos
and cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail, I wanted very much to do this, it was very much on
my mind. The Ambassador [Elsworth Bunker] I talked to about it, he was
actually my boss on the scene and in addition to that I reported the military to the
Commander in Chief Pacific, that was Admiral Sharr and Admiral Sharr and
Ambassador Bunker and They were very key on our cutting the Ho
Chi Minh trail and going into Laos. I had three plans that were made. Bruce
Palmer made one of those plans but it could have been done. All we needed
was for the local authority, which was never forthcoming.

G: Were you surprised that with the massive firepower that we brought to bear in
Vietnam that the enemy kept coming? That they seemed willing to sacrifice lives
on an unprecedented or what seemed to be an unprecedented scale?

W: They sent in a lot of men, no question about that. The bombing campaign was
not properly conducted. It was based on gradual escalation and the war was off
and on, depending upon political activities at home. Any number of cessations of
bombing, any number of cease-fires all of which are objective too. The British
consul in Hanoi in 1967, wrote an article about two years ago and he said that his
contacts with the authorities in Hanoi had led him to the conclusion that they
were about ready to capitulate at the end of 1967 because of the effectiveness of
the bombing. So the bombing was reasonably effective but it could have been, I
think, quite successful if there had not been restraints imposed on it that were the
case and that couple of the cutting the Ho Chi Minh Trail and when I thought that
I might authority to do that, was after the defeat of the Tet Offensive and if we
had cut the supply line physically. You cannot block a line of communication.
You cannot stop grounds troops except by having ground troops on the ground to
confront them. You cannot do it with air power. These were all political

G: We used other means to did we not along the DMZ, the so-called McNamara
Trace where we had automatic weapons, sensors...

W: Those are intelligence devices in order to give us indications of movement in
order to determine where they were moving and when they were moving and
they moved primarily at night. So that flares could be dropped and bombing rage
could be made to try to raise the cross of that infiltration. That was partially
successful but as I said earlier, you cannot block movement on the ground by
any other means than having people on the ground, to physically block it.

FP 5
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G: You criticize the way in which the bombing campaign was carried out. Robert
Pisor, a journalist and a recently published book, The End of The Line: The
Battle of Khe Sahn, alleges that the North Vietnamese and the Vietcong also I
believe, had as much as twenty-four hours notice prior to B-52 bombings. That
they had some infiltrator in headquarters of the Air Force or your command. He
is not clear in specifying exactly how that information originated. Did you ever
suspect that there was such information that got out from your people?

W: We were somewhat suspicious, however we were never able to pin it down and I
am not at all convinced that such was the case.

G: When you criticize the Air Force do you do so with perhaps a special interest in
mind? Did you have yourself command over the Air Force? I understood that
one of your problems was that you did not have the Navy and did not have some
of the aviation under your direct command.

W: Well, first let me make clear, I am certainly not criticizing the Air Force. What I
was doing was criticizing the policy. The Air Force did a fine job and the
Air Force were under my command for the strikes in Vietnam and in the area
adjacent to South Vietnam. The strategic-type bombing around Hanoi and I
found was not under me. It was under the command of Chief Pacific who
carried this mission out through this air component and Naval component
commanders. It worked quite well. I insisted that I have preemptive authority
over all air strikes in order to support my troops if required.

G: Did you ever think in the earlier campaigns you fought in the second World War
and again in Korea that you would be in command of a field force whose success
was determined by body counts rather than hills, seas, lines, overruns, cities
captured and so forth. The way in which I suppose conventional success was
measured in the past.

W: Well, I would not believe that a body count was a measure of success. The
destruction of enemy units was a measure of success. But this was a different
war. It was a war where we had the longest hostile front of any war ever fought
by America almost 900 miles long. We could not fight a [conventional] war. In
order to fight the war in Vietnam like we did Korea or World War II or World War
I, we would have needed about 5 million troops. I had only a fraction of those.
Therefore, I had to pursue tactics in order to confront the enemy when he
violated, which he did frequently, this almost 900 mile hostile front. The tactics
that I pursued were the tactics of the Civil War where terrain did not mean
anything except whether it was an air base or a sea port or a key
communications center in very key populations. Those areas we did provide

FP 5
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defenses to secure that vital terrain. The rest of the terrain was not a great
tactical issue of strategic importance. I had to home in on the enemy and I had
fortunately a tremendous mobility provided by the helicopter and in the Civil War,
the mobility was provided by the horse but the tactics were basically the same. It
is the only war that I know of that America has fought other than the Civil War
where the terrain was not important. Mobility was essential and that mobility was
exercised to the utmost and with a handful of troops in consideration of the long
hostile front. We kept the enemy constantly off-balance.

G: You were always looking for set battle pieces that were centerpiece battles
where you could bring your mass strength together against the North Vietnamese

W: Well, when targets were presented by the [enemy],certainly we were able to use
our firepower in order to destroy them. Whether you call that a centerpiece
battle, it was an opportunity and obviously the tactics we used were
commensurate with the opportunity. Khe Sanh of course was designed to defeat
the enemy through air power. I wanted to fight the enemy in an area where there
was relatively no population. We were very careful to try to avoid damage to
civilian property and lower civilian casualties. If I had not fought the enemy at
Khe Sanh, we would have been fighting on the coastline, a heavily populated
area. It would have been very costly and civilian casualties would have taken an
awful lot of time and may have increased our casualties and would have done
tremendous damage to civilian property.

G: Your counterpart, General Nguyen Giap of the North Vietnamese Army came into
Khe Sanh to do battle with you at exactly that location. Did you lure him in?
Had you intelligence that he was planning to come in because you certainly
prepared yourself for the battle well in advance?

W: We had a certain amount of intelligence that he was going to overrun that base
and that would mean that he would [threaten] the defenses we had South of the
[demilitarized] zone. That was an intermediate objective on the way to the
populated areas on the coastline. So we did have that intelligence but then on
the other hand, I did take advantage of the terrain to destroy them by air power.
There were casualties to the Marines and to Special Forces but they were very
small in number compared to those afflicted on the enemy.
G: I think of our marines in Lebanon now, hunkered down fighting a purely defensive
battle and that was in the main the kind of battle that they fought at Khe Sanh
was it not? They held a position. I know they sent out a few patrols or some
larger units to try to meet the enemy outside the perimeter but in the main did we
not just establish ourselves and defend the position?

FP 5
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W: After we were able to control the key terrain and establish a perimeter. Actually I
gave a marine commander instructions not to send out patrols because the
patrols have been ambushed or lost. That would have meant that we could not
have put air power on there and I did not want anything to mask the use of our air
power. So the defensive positions did attract the enemy and he attacked on a
number of occasions but in most cases, the attacks were spoiled by artillery.
See, we had 175 guns in range specifically about a battalion and a half in
addition to that we had tactical air strikes and we had B-52s which could be used
when the targets justified that.

G: In World War II and again in Korea, the Army discovered, I believe, somewhat to
its dismay that many soldiers did not fire their weapons even in life-threatening
situations. I wonder if you have any information about the performance level of
infantry men in the Vietnam War?

W: It was S. L. A. Marshall [military historian] that came to the conclusion that lot of
soldiers were not firing their weapons. I have no evidence that that practice was
solid in any degree. I do in the Vietnam War because I had the M-16 which is a
rapid fire weapon. Of course, we had only semi-automatic weapons in the other

G: Did the M-16 in your view compare with the AK-47 which I think was in the main,
of a Chinese manufacturer who released those in the hands of the NVA [North
Vietnamese Army]?

W: The AK-47 was a more rugged weapon. It was really difficult to keep it from
misfiring. In other words, you could put it in the mud and pick it up and it would
operate. On the other hand, the M-16 had to be cleaned if not there would be
misfires but when it operated and it was properly cared for by the soldier, it was
the perfect weapon compared to the AK-47.

G: To turn to another subject, and very briefly because I understand you cannot talk
about the subject at length, but you do have a legal suit against the [CBS]
Broadcasting Division, the television division. Can you at least say what the suit
is about and then we will pass on and why you cannot talk about it?

W: No, it is just under litigation and I cannot discuss it.

G O.K. well, we will let it pass at that. Let me go to a related question though
because I have read in David Halberstam's book, The Best and The Brightest
that when you first took command, a colonel in intelligence, William Crossman

FP 5
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was asked by you to prepare an estimate on reinforcement capacity of the North
Vietnamese Army, how many troops they could send down the Ho Chi Minh trail
into your territory while not leaving Hanoi undefended. Crossman was
astonished at the figures he turned out and according to the story, showed his
information to another general officer who persuaded him to scale the numbers
down because it would be unnerving to the people back in Washington. So
Halberstam says in his book that this was done and the numbers presented to
you were not the truthful figures.

W: I have no knowledge of that.

G: That is Halberstam's account and I wanted to ask you directly about it. IS this the
kind of war in which uniformly you had command of everything that took place? I
am thinking about the effort to destroy the infrastructure, Operation Phoenix and
operations of that sort, which were CIA directed. Were these operations
responsible to you, did you have control over them?

W: Initially they were not but there is a conference in Guam in March of 1967 at
which time the [pacification] operation was put under me and I was given an
[agent], Mr. Bob Colmar, in order to handle the __ function. We affected
some reorganization in order to put to pacification and all the facets of
pacification under a simple management or arrangement.

G: The ARV (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) went through many different
changes of command and indeed the premiership of the country passed
repeatedly from one person to another. Frequently these were generals. Did
you find the ARV paralyzed by politics and unable to function as an effective
fighting force?

W: In 1963 and 1964 and 1965, yes. But the political situation stabilized after 1965
and military command basically stabilized. Yes, there were changes in division
commanders and commanders but basically the commander of the
Vietnamese joint general staff remained unchanged for a number of years and
President Diem, he was the first president and it continued with Wen Kao Ke his
prime minister. They were in office for a number of years.

G: Is it true that many of the best ARVN fighting units, __ paratrooper brigades
and so forth, were kept in and around Saigon under the personal command of
individual general politicians and did not get out into the field and fight as you had
hoped they would.

FP 5
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W: Well, that was true during the early days in 1964 and 1965 but after that it was
not true.

G: How did the Korean troops reveal themselves in battle, the ROKS [Republic of
Korea] I think they were called? Were they as good in Vietnam as they had
proved to be in the Korean conflict?

W: There were two divisions of Korean army troops and there is one brigade of
Koreans and they [acquitted] themselves quite well, yes. I fought along side of
the Koreans and in the Koran War and they were not very good at the outset but
they improved as time went on and in Vietnam they acquitted themselves well.

G: Did you find that there was a certain arrogance on the part of American military
people who went to Vietnam perhaps people who were persuaded of the
superiority of American know-how, technological prowess, armaments, military
tradition and so forth. A certain arrogance which led some to believe that well,
with all that we have in intelligence and weaponry, we should be able to take care
of this war within a very short period of time?

W: I am not aware of any arrogance. I am not aware of anybody who was on the
scene and knew the situation that prevailed there. I doubt that the war could be
concluded in a relatively short time, in consideration of the political parameters
that had been prescribed. There may have been some strategists
making for them but they were not on the battlefield.

G: You speak of the political parameters. You have been quoted as saying that you
had to fight this wear with one hand tied behind your back. Is that accurate?

W: Well, there were restraints of many types. Restraints on the targets to hit by the
bombers, there were restraints in some respects on weapons to be used and one
time we could not use control agents, namely tear gas but that was later
changed. But the restraint that plagued us was a geographical restraint where
the enemy could go into Laos and Cambodia and there was nothing we could do
about it, we could not even pursue them by far from the ground. We could not
maneuver there and that is why we had this 900 mile hostile front.

G: That hostile front is running north and south?

W: The hostile front ran across the and the Vietnamese Laos border and
the Vietnamese Cambodian border and ended up in the Sea of Siam.