The Real Reason Westmoreland Asked for Reinforcements During the Tet Offensive

“…the country would have been lost to the enemy if it weren’t for American actions.”[1] Edward Lansdale, referring to the Communist Tet Offensive

During the Tet Offensive, few individuals outside of the upper echelons of the U.S. government knew just how close the Government of South Vietnam (GVN) and the South Vietnamese Armed Forces (RVNAF) came to total collapse. The reason for the public’s ignorance of the actual situation prevailing in South Vietnam had a lot to do with the misinformation fed to the media by top U.S. officials, especially U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam Ellsworth Bunker and General William C. Westmoreland.

Ellsworth Bunker stated in an interview on February 19, 1968, that the South Vietnamese government and military “turned in an excellent performance in the recent fighting.” He then made the absurd claim that “…the Vietcong had also pulled into the cities from the countryside, weakening their positions in the hamlets and villages.”[2] Bunker’s disassembling made sense from a military standpoint. He could not come out and acknowledge that America’s South Vietnamese ally was actually on the ropes and perilously close to defeat. If he had done so, his words may have encouraged the enemy to launch a second-Tet-sized offensive that would deliver the coup de grace to the GVN and RVNAF. Nevertheless, Bunker’s statement had another important consequence, it deceived the U.S. public and members of Congress about the true state of affairs in South Vietnam. In trumpeting the “excellent performance” of the RVNAF and GVN, Bunker created the impression that the United States, working with an apparently strong South Vietnamese partner, could still achieve its political and military objectives in South Vietnam.

General William C. Westmoreland, like Bunker, sought to portray the South Vietnamese in the most positive light. He said of the RVNAF during the Tet Offensive, “…[they] performed well indeed…their morale and fighting spirit were undoubtedly enhanced by their successes…a fact which augurs well for the future.”[3] That last comment was instructive. Westmoreland wanted the American people to believe that South Vietnam was still a viable ally and the U.S., if it stayed the course, would eventually triumph over the Vietcong and North Vietnamese. The average, uninformed American, hearing Westmoreland’s assessment, would have concluded that the South Vietnamese put in a stellar performance at Tet.

Westmoreland and Bunker spoke of South Vietnamese competence to hide South Vietnamese failure.  This simple fact explains why the American public, Congress, the media, and top officials at State and Defense, found it difficult to understand, let alone accept, Westmoreland’s request for 205,000 additional U.S. troops for South Vietnam, which he forwarded to the Johnson administration on February 9, 1968. After learning of the request, the question that arose in the minds of millions of Americans was this: if the South Vietnamese possessed so much “fighting spirit,” why did the U.S. need to send reinforcements to South Vietnam?

Despite the fact that Westmoreland never publicly admitted it, he asked for reinforcements for South Vietnam because of the dismal performance of the RVNAF during the first weeks of the Tet Offensive.  Westmoreland wanted U.S. reinforcements to serve as fillers in the Allied military structure, meaning they would fill the gap in combat power resulting from the destruction and disorganization of ARVN units. Twelve days into the offensive, Westmoreland informed Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Earle Wheeler that he needed immediate reinforcement, “To off-set the weakened Vietnamese forces resulting from casualties and Tet desertions.”[4] Privately, Westmoreland portrayed the ARVN as a spent force dangerously close to complete disintegration. He wanted 15 manuever battalions (40,000 combat troops) right away. This augmentation would take some of the heat off the ARVN, and according to Wheeler, “…prevent the ARVN from falling apart.”[5]

Although Westmoreland and Wheeler attempted to rush the President into making a quick decision on the reinforcements, Johnson and his team wanted time to consider the economic, political, and military implications, both domestically and internationally, of such a massive troop augmentation. During the period of administration review, Westmoreland and Wheeler continued to pressure President, insisting on the need for U.S. reinforcements as soon as possible because of ARVN weakness. Both men felt that without additional infusions of U.S. ground combat strength, the U.S. and ARVN risked losing future battles. Wheeler told the President on February 27, that the ARVN had 58 MBNs [manuever battalions] rated “ineffective.” The South Vietnamese still had 97 effective battalions, but their state of readiness varied widely. Because of the condition of the ARVN, Wheeler said that U.S. units had to “…pick up part of the tab from ARVN…” especially in the Mekong Delta, Saigon, the Central Highlands, Hue, and northern I Corps – essentially everywhere there existed major combat operations. Wheeler cautioned the President that if the enemy continued with large, coordinated attacks and the U.S. did not reinforce, “…General Westmoreland’s margin will be paper thin. He does not have a theater reserve. We can expect some cliffhangers and with bad luck or weather or some local RVNAF failures he may suffer some reverses. For these reasons he is asking for additional forces….” These were not the words of a general confident in the staying power of the RVNAF or in the final outcome of the ongoing Tet Offensive.[6]

Johnson did not want another embarrassing battlefield defeat to come on the heels of the Tet Offensive. His political standing was already low. He did not want it to go any lower. So rather than reject out of hand further reinforcements, he asked for a detailed explanation from Westmoreland of how he intended to use the 205,000 additional troops. On March 2, Westmoreland provided the President with that explanation. Put simply, the general wanted more American troops because he could no longer rely on the ARVN. He wrote the President, “Additive forces would serve to forestall the danger of local defeats due to the tactical degeneration or temporary disorganization of some ARVN units in the event of another general enemy offensive….”[7]

Westmoreland also wanted reinforcements because he didn’t believe the ARVN possessed the capability to dislodge the Vietcong and North Vietnamese from the hamlets and villages that had fallen to the Communists during their recent offensive. Westmoreland worried that ARVN commanders would keep their units in the cities, safely under the U.S.’s air umbrella. Unless the Allies returned quickly to the countryside, the Communists would consolidate their hold over vast stretches of newly acquired territory and in doing so recoup through peasant recruitment the personnel losses they had suffered during the Tet Offensive. Westmoreland wrote that the consolidation of the Vietcong’s position in rural South Vietnam “…is of particular concern to me.”[8]

Westmoreland’s troop request ignited a fierce debate in Washington over the direction of the war. While Westmoreland and Wheeler lobbied for reinforcements, others in the American national security bureaucracy worked to undermine the arguments of the two generals. Civilians in the Department of Defense’s Systems Analysis office, most notably Alain Enthoven, thought additional reinforcements would intensify the level of violence in the South, result in an increase in U.S. casualties, and increase the likelihood of Chinese intervention – without any chance of bringing the U.S. closer to the attainment of its goals.

Ambassador Bunker, usually a hard-liner on Vietnam policy, opposed the troop request on the grounds that the extra U.S. troops would further destabilize South Vietnamese society. He opined, “I am concerned about sizable additional U.S. forces because of the effects of our overwhelming presence here and the possibility that the destructive effect of our type of warfare will nullify some of our basic purpose.”[9] In other words, Bunker worried that additional U.S. troops, and their accompanying firepower, would result in diminishing returns, harming the long-term U.S. aim of establishing a socially cohesive, economically viable South Vietnam.

Incoming Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford recognized that a successful conclusion to the war depended on the GVN gaining enough popular support in rural South Vietnam to defeat the insurgency. Widespread popular backing for the GVN would deny the Vietcong a recruitment base, civilian logistical assistance, foodstuffs, war materials, and safe haven – all of the factors so vital to Vietcong military strength. Clifford did not believe 205,000 additional U.S. troops would bolster the GVN’s position amongst the peasantry or ensure that the South Vietnamese elite became more accountable to their people. Rather, U.S. reinforcements would actually have a negative effect on the GVN. To Clifford, a troop augmentation on the scale of Westmoreland’s request implied that the U.S. would completely take over the war. Under those circumstances, RVNAF commanders would develop a greater dependency on U.S. firepower and U.S. troop support. In essence, the RVNAF would lose what little fighting spirit it still had left. At the same time, GVN officials would become more corrupt and less amendable to the aspirations of their people.

Clifford believed strongly that the South Vietnamese elite wanted the war to continue indefinitely because they financially benefited from it. A massive U.S. military presence in South Vietnam, on the magnitude of 730,000 troops, would allow the southern ruling class to continue with business as usual, which meant enriching themselves on American largesse. Top South Vietnamese military, political, and business leaders would have no incentive to reform the South’s skewed political-economic order and its glaring disparities in wealth and political influence. According to Clifford, if the President granted Westmoreland’s request, the U.S. would be playing right into the hands of the oligarchs running South Vietnam.[10] Staffers in the DoD supported Clifford’s position, they wrote, “A large influx of additional U.S. forces will intensify the belief of the ruling elite that the U.S. will continue to fight its war while it engages in backroom politics and permits widespread corruption.”[11] Officials at Treasury and State contended that the deployment of another 205,000 men to South Vietnam would harm the U.S. economy, increase tensions with the U.S.S.R. and China, and bring about a dangerous domestic political crisis.

More than anyone else, outgoing Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara persuaded the President to reject Westmoreland’s request for reinforcements. In a series of meetings with Johnson over three days in February, McNamara presented his case against a massive augmentation of U.S. ground strength in South Vietnam. He argued that the troop request stemmed from the poor performance, and high desertion rate, of the RVNAF during the Tet Offensive. He believed the U.S. would never win the war, or be able to exit South Vietnam, unless the South Vietnamese got their act together. “I fear we are further involving the U.S. as a substitute for Vietnamese troops…We do not correct a situation by putting more U.S. troops in.”[12] A day later, and in another meeting with the President, he said, “…it is not a shortage of U.S. battalions at issue.  It is the stability of the political structure in Vietnam and a lack of motivation by the ARVN and the PF [Popular Forces] and RF [Regional Forces].”  Before the meeting adjoined, the Secretary of Defense remarked, “We should not do their job for them.  Let them fight it out for themselves.”[13]

In his last, best advice, McNamara recommended to Johnson that he cap the U.S. troop commitment, reject a reserve call-up, and progressively turn over the ground war to the RVNAF.  On February 12, Johnson informed the long-serving Secretary of Defense, who by then was suffering from nervous exhaustion, that he favored his approach, especially the turning of the war over to the South Vietnamese. Although discussions of the troop increase continued into March, Johnson did not alter his February 12th position. Westmoreland never got the 205,000 troops.[14]

[1]Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS), 1964-1968, Volume VI, Vietnam, January-August 1968, “Document 88, Memorandum from the Ambassador’s Special Assistant (Lansdale) to the Ambassador to Vietnam (Bunker), February 27, 1968,” (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 2002), 253.

[2] New York Times, “Bunker Sees Gains, February 19, 1968.

[3] New York Times, “Outlook Assessed By Westmoreland,” Associated Press, February 26, 1968.

[4] FRUS, Vietnam, Volume VI, “Document 63, Telegram from the Commander, Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (Westmoreland) to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Wheeler) and the Commander in Chief, Pacific (Sharp), February 9, 1968,” 157.

[5] FRUS, Vietnam, Volume VI, “Document 64 Notes of Meeting, February 9, 1968,” 160.

[6] FRUS, Vietnam, Volume VI, “Document 90, Memorandum from the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Wheeler) to President Johnson, February 27, 1968,” 265.

[7] FRUS, Vietnam, Volume VI, “Document 99, Telegram from the Commander, Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (Westmoreland) to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Wheeler), March 2, 1968,” 305.

[8] Ibid., 305.

[9] FRUS, Vietnam, Volume VI, “Document 117, Telegram from the Embassy in Vietnam to the Department of State, March 11, 1968,” 361.

[10] FRUS, Vietnam, Volume VI, “Document 324, Notes of Meeting, August 25, 1968,” 939-941; FRUS, Vietnam, Volume VI, “Document 306, Editorial Note,” 887.

[11] Vietnam Task Force, Office of the Secretary of Defense, The Pentagon Papers, Parts IV.C.6 through IV.C.8, “IV.C.6. (c), U.S. Ground Strategy and Force Deployments, 1965-1967, Volume III,” (Nimble Books LLC, 2011), 36.

[12] FRUS, Vietnam, Volume VI, “Document 65, Notes of Meeting, February 10, 1968,” 169, 170.

[13] FRUS, Vietnam, Volume VI, “Document 67, Notes of Meeting, February 11, 1968,” 179, 182.

[14] FRUS, Vietnam, Volume VI, “Document 69, Telephone Conversation Between President Johnson and Secretary of Defense McNamara, February 12, 1968, 186-187; FRUS, Vietnam, Volume VI, “Document 70, Notes of Meeting, February 12, 1968” 195.

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