Westmoreland: LBJ’s Choice To Command in Vietnam

In 1964, at age 50, William C. Westmoreland possessed the look of a professional soldier. He stood ramrod straight at five feet ten inches tall, carried his frame with a confident, light gait, and weighed a healthy 180 pounds, which was only ten pounds more than what he weighed as a cadet at West Point thirty years earlier.  He maintained a flat stomach at a time in life when most men his age had developed a paunch from decades of bad food and too much time behind a desk.

To stay fit, Westy, as his confidants knew him, did push-ups immediately after rising from bed in the morning.  Even though he spent most of his days in an office in Saigon, or sitting in helicopters, jeeps, and airplanes, he still found time to swim and play tennis at the French Circle Sportif.  He particularly enjoyed tennis.  When Maxwell Taylor (who had been Westy’s mentor in the military) served as ambassador to South Vietnam, Westy and Max occasionally played a game together.  Among those who served with him, Westmoreland was known to have never displayed unpredictable or reckless behaviour.  He didn’t smoke, rarely drank alcohol, and did not curse.  The foulest words in his vocabulary were apparently “darn” and “dang.”

The general had deep-set, strong dark eyes that held a steady, focused gaze.  Above Westmoreland’s intense eyes lay thick, jet black brows.  In the fashion of the day, he combed his greying and thinning hair straight back, revealing the balding along both sides of his forehead.  In accord with military regulations, he wore his hair short on top and tight on the sides, where the grey hair became more visible.  Westmoreland had a jutting, square jaw, and a proud, full chest.

To add lustre to his image, Westmoreland possessed a furrowed scar across his left cheek.  The crease had been made years ago in an automobile accident.  As military men knew, a facial scar, acquired in sword play, once marked Prussian military officers with distinction.  It had been a form of ritual mutilation that added to a Prussian officer’s status and character.  Although Westmoreland’s scar had been acquired as a child in an unfortunate accident, the mark added an element of mystique to Westy’s spit-and-polish demeanour.

Westmoreland could be very particular about his dress.  Even while out in the bush in South Vietnam, amongst grubby, combat-weary G.I.’s, Westy appeared in pressed, clean, olive-drab jungle fatigues.  He might sweat dark spots through his fatigues in the oppressive heat or get drenched in one of South Vietnam’s frequent downpours, but he still looked good, he always looked good.  On his head, that unattractive baseball-cap fatigue hat of the 1960s looked like it belonged there.  Most G.I.’s who wore that hat looked dishevelled, or childish, or uncomfortable in it, but not Westy.  In a decade that witnessed the rise of television media and the proliferation of photography as powerful forces in American culture and politics, Westmoreland understood the importance of appearances.  The camera liked him, even if by the spring of 1968 the media did not.

Westmoreland’s meticulous appearance contributed to his career advancement.  Just how much it influenced the Army’s promotion boards is impossible to gauge, but his good looks certainly did not hinder his rise to four-star general.  Westy knew that looks mattered in the military, it was why he devoted so much time to his physical fitness and dress.

Westmoreland’s mode of speech was measured, articulate, and persuasive.  He spoke clearly, somewhat loudly, and in short sentences that carried a punch.  Unlike others in his profession, such as Earle Wheeler, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he was not droning in conversation.  He could be passionate and animated.  He had a tendency to enunciate certain words for dramatic effect.  His writing style mimicked his speech.  His memos could express a sense of gravitas and laser-like focus.  Westy went quickly to the heart of any matter.  He was neither verbose nor rambling.  These traits appealed to his men and to his Commander-in-Chief, Johnson.

Some of Westmoreland’s subordinates considered him too uptight, too spit and polish, too controlled; but in his business, the business of killing men and killing them by the thousands and then hundreds of thousands, control was of utmost importance.  Westmoreland believed that without the control of man’s emotions, his wilder impulses, and his perverse derangements, war could quickly descend into an insane slaughter divorced from political purpose.  Westmoreland was so controlled because what he did was so potentially out of control.

LBJ chose Westmoreland to serve as the head of MACV (Military Assistance Command, Vietnam) partly because Westy’s mentor, Maxwell Taylor, served as one of Johnson’s advisors on Vietnam policy.  Taylor recommended Westmoreland to the president.  In addition, Taylor was an advocate of gradual escalation, which required strict control over the military command structure and the tools of war.  If graduated military pressure was to be applied in Vietnam against the Communists, the commander there needed to strictly adhere to the tenets of gradualism, without escalating the conflict too hurriedly or in a way that risked igniting a global war.  Taylor and Johnson believed Westmoreland would not make rash decisions that would imperil the concept of gradualism.

Westmoreland also had good relations with Congress.  Having served as the superintendent of West Point between 1960 and 1963, Westy knew a lot of senators.  The president understood that Westmoreland’s connections with Congress would help the administration gain congressional support for expanded military operations in Indochina.

Most importantly, LBJ chose Westmoreland as his war general because he was the un-MacArthur.  General Douglas MacArthur commanded U.N. forces in Korea from June 1950 until April 1951.  In spring 1951, the flamboyant MacArthur publicly challenged President Truman’s decision to limit the geographical scope of the war in Korea to the Korean Peninsula.  MacArthur wanted to take the war to the Chinese Mainland.  MacArthur also wanted Truman to lift the prohibition against the use of atomic bombs against Chinese economic and military targets; even though the use of atomic bombs against Communist China carried the real possibility of war with the Soviet Union, China’s Communist ally.

By spring 1951, some members of the Truman administration feared that MacArthur might order the use of atomic bombs (stockpiled in Japan and under his command) against the Chinese without presidential authorization.  Truman recognized the threat MacArthur posed to civilian control of the military.  But most importantly, the president did not want a potentially catastrophic war with the Soviet Union.  As a result, Truman fired MacArthur.  Truman’s dismissal of MacArthur brought down a firestorm of criticism against the president from the general’s Republican Party allies in Congress.  Nevertheless, Truman held firm to his decision.

LBJ, like Truman, feared a general war with China and the Soviet Union.  He knew the conflict in Vietnam could easily spill over into China and lead to a superpower confrontation.  Thus, Johnson wanted a general at MACV who would accept the administration’s policy of limited war in Vietnam, who would always obey his commander-in-chief, and who would not publicly challenge the president.  Westy fit the bill perfectly.  The general’s adherence to routine, his lack of emotionalism, his measured words, his decades-long obedience to the military hierarchy, and his boring personality were all viewed by Johnson as strengths.  So Westmoreland became LBJ’s choice to command American forces in Vietnam, not because he was a brilliant military leader, but because he would never defy the president.

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