Book Review: Westmoreland’s War – Reassessing American Strategy in Vietnam by Gregory Daddis

[FULL DISCLOSURE: I received my copy of this book free from the author. I was not paid for this review and the opinion expressed is purely my own]

Westmoreland’s War: Reassessing American Strategy in Vietnam is one of those increasingly rare history books that seeks to explain the why of history instead of assigning blame for past events.  Specifically, this book looks at the situation in Vietnam prior to and during William Westmoreland’s tenure as Commander, Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV).  In the process, it illuminates how complex were the strategic and tactical problems faced by Ameria in Vietnam and how the situation was not amenable to a decentralized, mostly military solution.

The book itself is divided into six topical chapters that range from strategy development to destroying the myth of attrition as the main military goal.  It includes a very useful list of acronyms that will be unfamiliar to anyone without a military background or not already a student of the war.  There are also 59 pages of very useful and expansive endnotes.  My review copy has no illustrations or maps, only placeholders for them.

if you have ever studied the Vietnam War in any depth you have run across the common trope that the US had no real strategy in Vietnam other than killing the enemy.  Further, that focus on killing the enemy is what cost the US the war by virtually guaranteeing that the average Vietnamese peasant farmer would come to hate both Americans and the Saigon government they supported.  Daddis destroys the notion of blind killing as strategy in this book.  He freely admits that strategic implication was extremely difficult and perhaps even impossible in the complex environment of Vietnam.  However, he also demonstrates quite adeptly that the US had a comprehensive strategy in Vietnam.

As he so adeptly demonstrates, the US military could not win the war by themselves in Vietnam and regardless of the number of battlefield successes by the Army and Marines, as long as the government and people of South Vietnam did not buy into the campaign to defeat the VC and NVA the US could not win.  He demonstrates that Westmoreland in particular had a good grasp of the difficult job he faced and also demonstrates that a sound strategy was developed.  The problem in Vietnam for the US was not strategy but the implementation of said strategy.  For everything that went right one or sometimes two other things went wrong.

The South Vietnamese government never enjoyed broad public support and was continually hamstrung by internal corruption, civilian reticence, lack of support, and infiltration by the enemy.  Indeed, if the US had not intervened when they did it is entirely plausible that Vietnam would have been unified under the communists in 1966 or 1967 instead of 1975.  Whether the human cost of that ten year delay was worth ti is properly the subject of another volume.

This book destroy’s the idea that the US military and William Westmoreland in particular were flopping around in Vietnam without a strategy beyond piling the bodies as high as they could.  The many and diverse factors besides the application of military force were just as, if not more important as the military role in deciding defeat and victory in Vietnam as in every other insurgency in history.  Insurgency is the ultimate dirty war and the non-military factors of such wars make their successful prosecution much more difficult.  Westmoreland did not fail in Vietnam, but he did not succeed either.  Given the conditions he ha to operate in he succeeded a well as any man could be expected to and he does not deserve the reputation as a failure that he has gotten post-war.  Daddis is 100% correct when he states that Westmoreland has become a scapegoat for a failed war.  The picture of Westmoreland that has emerged in conventional histories of the war is a caricatre of the real man and this book does much to correct that picture and brig it closer to the truth of a competent general doing his best and his best not being enough.

This is one of the best strategic analysis of the Vietnam war I have ever read and the balanced treatment of the subject is refreshing when compared to the typical blame game regarding General Westmoreland that usually occurs.  I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to get a clear picture of just how complex the war in Vietnam was and the strategic concept developed by America in the critical early phase of the war.