Vietnam 1965: Westmoreland and the Much-Maligned Strategy

On June 28, 1965, President Johnson gave General William C. Westmoreland the authority to commence offensive ground operations against the Vietcong and North Vietnamese across all of South Vietnam.

Although Westmoreland now had a green light to wage a ground war, he still had not firmed up his strategy, or concept of operations, for the employment of U.S. troops. Nevertheless, the chief of Military Assistance Command – Vietnam (MACV) did have an idea of how he wanted to use the ever-increasing number of U.S. combat troops then entering South Vietnam. In a telegram to the Commander-In-Chief, Pacific, Admiral U.S. Grant Sharp, Westmoreland revealed his understanding of the nature of the war in South Vietnam and how he wanted to utilize U.S. combat troops.

Westmoreland informed Admiral Sharp that he believed the armed struggle in South Vietnam had progressed beyond a strictly guerrilla war; it had advanced to Stage Three of Mao Tse-Tungs’s stages of insurgent war. At that stage, the Communists fielded conventional main forces of battalion strength or larger, rather than merely local, part-time guerrillas or company-sized units. These battalion and regimental main forces represented the pinnacle of insurgent military organization.

Within South Vietnam, Vietcong and North Vietnamese main forces fought at the province and inter-province level and their primary mission involved destroying Allied main forces and then besieging, isolating, and capturing Allied enclaves. According to Westmoreland, the formation of the Communist main forces heralded the expected triumph of the revolution. The MACV commander wrote, “The VC are now maneuvering large forces up to reinforce[d] regiments equipped with heavy weapons. Thus, we are approaching the kind of warfare faced by the French in the later stages of their efforts here.”[1]

In addition to the main forces, the Vietcong possessed an impressive local guerrilla force, which fought at the village and hamlet level. The Vietcong also contained a political arm, made up of highly-motivated, well-trained, and secretive cadres, who were known by U.S. intelligence as the Vietcong Infrastructure or VCI. In 1965, MACV knew next to nothing about the VCI’s personnel strength, operations, or political influence. Nevertheless, Westmoreland understood that the entire Vietcong apparatus, including the main forces, local guerrillas, and VCI, had to be rooted out and destroyed in order to win the war. He recognized that if the hamlet-level guerrilla units remained intact, the Vietcong could reconstitute its main forces from those local groups. And if the VCI continued to function, it could recruit rural youth into the local and main forces. Westmoreland noted, “There is no doubt whatsoever that the insurgency in South Vietnam must eventually be defeated among the people in the hamlets and towns. However, in order to defeat the insurgency among the people, they must be provided security of two kinds: (1) Security of the country as a whole from large well-organized and equipped forces including those which may come from outside their country. (2) Security from the guerrilla, the assassin, the terrorist and the informer…MACV is convinced that US troops can contribute heavily in the first category of security…but that only the Vietnamese can make real progress and succeed in respect to the [second] problem…Therefore, the MACV concept is basically to employ US forces…against the hardcore DRV/VC forces in reaction and search and destroy operations, and thus permit the concentration of Vietnamese troops in the heavily-populated areas along the coast, around Saigon, and in the Delta.”[2]

As the above paragraph indicates, Westmoreland’s emerging strategy assigned clearly defined roles to U.S. and South Vietnamese forces. U.S. troops would take on the Communist main forces, while South Vietnamese units would handle the local guerrillas and the VCI. Thus, the strategy played on the strengths of the two Allies. U.S. forces excelled at conventional warfare. American weapons, training, and tactics had long been geared toward fighting and defeating conventional Communist main forces, whether Soviet, Chinese, North Korean, or Cuban. Conversely, the South Vietnamese military had the language skills, cultural understanding, and knowledge of the local environment to most effectively root out the local guerrillas and VCI.

An added benefit of Westmoreland’s strategy was that it would not require any restructuring of the U.S. Army or Marines Corps. Both organizations could continue to emphasize conventional doctrine, tactics, training, and weapons systems. This meant that the war in Vietnam might actually enhance future U.S. conventional war-fighting capabilities, rather than weaken them. In addition, Westmoreland believed a war between U.S. conventional units and Communist main forces would allow the U.S. to employ its tremendous advantages in firepower without fear of mass civilian casualties. He did not think U.S. firepower could effectively be brought to bear against the local guerrillas, who were holed up in South Vietnam’s hamlets and villages, without also inflicting mass casualties on Vietnamese civilians. However, it should be noted that as the war intensified in late 1965 and 1966, the general changed his position on bombing and shelling local guerrillas, with the result that the South Vietnamese peasantry suffered huge casualties.

Westmoreland never seriously considered adopting a counter-insurgency strategy. He recognized that American GIs were unlikely to interact well with the South Vietnamese peasantry – a population with a long history of hatred for white colonists. Moreover, U.S. troops knew nothing of Vietnamese culture, did not speak the Vietnamese language, and many of them held racist attitudes toward Asiatic peoples. Westmoreland believed it would be a grave mistake to station small counter-insurgency teams in South Vietnam’s hamlets and villages. Not only would they anger the peasantry, they would likely be slaughtered by larger Communist forces operating in the vicinity.

Even if he had wanted to conduct a counter-insurgency strategy, Westmoreland was not going to get the troops to implement it. Counter-insurgency warfare involved labor-intensive operations. Thus, for the U.S. to have had any chance of success in a counter-insurgency war, it would have had to flood rural South Vietnam with American troops. In mid-1965, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara admitted that the U.S. did not have the troop numbers to adopt a counter-insurgency strategy. “The number of US troops is too small to make a significant difference in the traditional 10-1 government-guerrilla formula, but it is not too small to make a significant difference in the kind of war which seems to be evolving in Vietnam – a “Third Stage” or conventional war in which it is easier to identify, locate and attack the enemy.”[3] If McNamara’s 10-to-1 ratio rang true, the Allies would have needed over two million South Vietnamese and American troops to carry out a pacification strategy against a Communist military force estimated at close to 200,000 at the end of 1965. President Johnson would have found it difficult, if not impossible, to persuade the American people to support the huge troop deployments necessary to fight and win a counter-insurgency war in South Vietnam.

The Central Intelligence Agency gave Westmoreland another strong reason to keep U.S. troops away from the South Vietnamese peasantry. Its analysts wrote on June 30, 1965, “If foreign troops are given extensive pacification duties in heavily populated areas, the military results will probably be negligible and the political results adverse.”[4] In other words, American troops in the South’s villages and hamlets would upset the peasantry, convincing them that the Americans were an occupying army bent on their domination and exploitation. That perception would in-turn lead to widespread peasant opposition to the U.S. presence and a likely boost in Vietcong recruitment.

Assistant Secretary of State William Bundy (National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy’s brother) also worried about American troops fighting in close proximity to the South Vietnamese rural population, whether as counter-insurgents or as conventional units. In a memo circulated among top officials in the State Department in July 1965, he stated, “We just don’t know what will happen when we start fighting and are in contact with the people in disputed areas. At some point we could be playing into VC hands, and negating immediate military results, thus getting into a truly disastrous situation.”[5] In other words, a heavy U.S. bootprint in the hamlets of South Vietnam could foster a huge peasant backlash – one exploitable by the Vietcong. Should the peasantry rise up en masse and join the Vietcong, the U.S. would be in an impossible situation – with no chance of winning a war against millions of South Vietnamese peasants. South Vietnam’s President Nguyen Thieu held views similar to those of William Bundy. He too believed the deployment of American troops into South Vietnam’s hamlets and villages carried the real risk of inciting a mass peasant rebellion.[6]

Westmoreland had a solution to the problem posed by the CIA, Bundy, and Thieu. The general would deploy U.S. forces along South Vietnam’s frontiers. Atop the highlands, or positioned immediately south of the DMZ, the American expeditionary force would avoid contact with the peasantry. With U.S. troops isolated from the majority of rural residents, the Vietcong could not obtain any propaganda value from the American troop presence. An added bonus of fighting far from the population centers: U.S. firepower could be employed without inflicting mass civilian casualties. Westmoreland wrote, “What was the alternative [to deploying U.S. troops along the frontiers]: relinquish the Highlands and the territory just south of the DMZ? Do that and you allowed him [the Vietcong/PAVN] to push his base areas ever closer to the centers of population so that in the end you would be fighting among the population you were trying to protect.”[7]

At a meeting on strategy held in Saigon in mid-July 1965, attended by Westmoreland, McNamara, President Thieu, and Vice President Nguyen Cao Ky, the United States and GVN clarified the responsibilities and geographical focus of American and South Vietnamese units. “Under this concept [strategy], there would be two general areas – one area, the populous areas where GVN would devote its primary efforts; the other, the relatively unpopulated areas where the US/Allied forces would concentrate their efforts…The primary missions of the US/Allied forces would be search and destroy operations and the protection of important bases. The primary mission of ARVN would be to engage in pacification programs and to protect the population.”[8]

By this point in time, Westmoreland had done away with the idea of U.S. troops acting as a mobile reserve for the South Vietnamese. This idea had previously been put forward by U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam Maxwell Taylor. The inability of the Americans to coordinate operations with their South Vietnamese allies because of the language barrier ruled against the mobile reserve concept. Westmoreland also doubted that the South Vietnamese could maintain operational security. He knew the ARVN had a long history of divulging secrets to the Vietcong, either purposely or by accident. In the final analysis, Westmoreland deemed it better to keep the two armies within their own spheres of influence, rather than to try and conduct extensive joint operations.

During the discussions in Saigon on the future course of the war, President Thieu stated that the deployment of U.S. units against the Communist main forces would finally enable his government to succeed at pacification. Thieu remarked that ARVN commanders could focus on winning hearts and minds, rather than having to constantly divert resources and men to fight the enemy’s big units. According to the minutes of the meeting, Thieu remarked, “…if U.S. troops were to relieve ARVN to work actively in a pacification program, the current government could demonstrate to the people that it is capable and qualified to govern.”[9] How the GVN planned on winning the loyalty of the rural population after having failed to do so over the previous ten years wasn’t discussed at the meeting.

In mid-summer 1965, Westmoreland had a fairly good idea of how he wanted to use U.S. troops against the Vietcong. Yet, the White House had not approved his preferred strategy. The president and his national security adviser still questioned whether U.S. troops, trained in conventional warfare, could actually succeed against the unconventional tactics of the stealthy Vietcong.[10] McGeorge Bundy wanted Westmoreland’s concept of operations subjected to further review. His biggest concern was whether the U.S. could actually find and destroy the Communist main forces in South Vietnam’s remote hinterland. Bundy wrote Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara of his concerns, “…I see no reason to suppose that the Viet Cong will accommodate us by fighting the kind of war we desire…I think the odds are that if we put in 40-50 battalions with the missions here proposed, we shall find them [U.S. forces] only lightly engaged and ineffective in hot pursuit.”[11]

Bundy worried that the Vietcong and North Vietnamese main forces, once confronted by U.S. units, would simply break up into smaller units and lie low under South Vietnam’s extensive forest canopy, letting the Americans search the Vietnamese bush in vain. Bundy expressed a view shared by the CIA, whose analysts wrote, “It should not be expected, however, that the Viet Cong will necessarily stand and fight against superior forces. Rather they may drop backward a step to smaller scale harassment and hit and run raids in which they do not encounter superior US combat units.”[12]

Just as the White House and CIA expressed grave doubts about the effectiveness of a search and destroy strategy, Secretary of Defense McNamara provided Westmoreland with a new, expanded mission for U.S. ground forces in South Vietnam. Rather than only engaging the Communist main forces and providing a shield behind which the ARVN could pacify the rural population, U.S. ground units in the South now needed to attrite enemy forces. McNamara had concluded that attriting the enemy’s manpower pool was the only way to convince Hanoi and the Vietcong to call off hostilities in the South.[13] It wasn’t enough to simply destroy the main forces; because those forces could be reconstituted through recruitment in the South and infiltration from the North. The only way to force the capitulation of the Hanoi regime and Vietcong, according to McNamara, was for the U.S. to drain the Communist manpower pool, killing both northern infiltrators and southern guerrillas in such numbers as to convince the Communists they could not continue the struggle. For McNamara, the coming ground war had to be a war of attrition. The U.S. had to bleed the Reds white. That was the only way to force Hanoi to bend to America’s will. McNamara believed U.S. forces in the South had to achieve as soon as possible what he referred to as the “crossover point” – the point when the United States actually began killing more Communist troops than the Vietcong and Hanoi regime could replace through recruitment. Then, and only then, would the Communists begin to recognize the futility of continuing the war in South Vietnam. McNamara’s plan for a war of attrition in South Vietnam assumed that China would not intervene on behalf of the Hanoi regime. If China entered the fray in South Vietnam, the U.S. would never attain the crossover point, since Mao’s manpower pool was bottomless.

Attrition, and the breaking of the Communists’ will to resist, could be furthered by a successful pacification program in the South, by the air war over the North, and by air operations in the South; but McNamara didn’t think any of those military actions alone, or in conjunction with one another, would do the job. Pacification might decrease the Vietcong recruitment base, but it could take years to succeed in the countryside, and the U.S. home front might collapse before it did so. Continual airstrikes over the North would not kill enough North Vietnamese troops to influence Hanoi’s will to resist. And the air war over the South would not attrite enough of the Vietcong because the guerrillas were experts at camouflage, concealment, and entrenchment, all of which limited their casualties. McNamara admitted to the president that air power could hurt the Vietcong, but it could not single-handedly defeat them. In the Secretary of Defense’s estimation, only ground troops could inflict the casualties required to end the war in a reasonable amount of time – before domestic U.S. support for American involvement evaporated.

In the aftermath of the Bundy and CIA memos criticizing Westmoreland’s preferred strategy, McNamara ordered a Joint Chiefs of Staff study group, headed by General Andrew Goodpaster, to examine Westmoreland’s concept of operations.[14] The Secretary of Defense wanted to know from Goodpaster’s team whether U.S. units would succeed in hunting down and killing the Vietcong and North Vietnamese in South Vietnam’s western wilds in such numbers as to break the Communists’ will to resist. McNamara also asked the Goodpaster team to estimate how many U.S. troops it would take to achieve that objective.

The Goodpaster group came up with a series of answers that did nothing to assuage the fears of the Secretary of Defense. The study concluded, “…we cannot assert with certainty that tactics can be devised and operations conducted that will, in fact, put the DRV/VC battalions out of operation and keep them so.”[15] Moreover, the study group failed to determine how many U.S. troops it would take to kill enough enemy soldiers to convince Hanoi and the Vietcong to quit the war in South Vietnam. The report noted, “…[that] is a question that cannot be answered at this time.”[16]

Despite the serious misgivings expressed by Bundy, the CIA, and the Goodpaster group about whether Westmoreland’s strategy could achieve U.S. goals, the general pushed ahead with the preparations necessary to implement his strategy.

By early September 1965, Westmoreland had finalized the details of his concept of operations. The fundamentals of the strategy remained the same as when they had first been vetted back in June and July. The U.S. would fight the enemy’s main forces in South Vietnam’s remote regions, while the ARVN would carry out pacification in the populated lowlands. And hopefully, Westmoreland’s big-unit operations along South Vietnam’s western frontier would attrite enough of the enemy to win the war.

Westmoreland recognized that the ARVN’s success at pacification would play an important part in whether the Allies won or lost the war. The U.S. could provide a shield for the ARVN, and kill the Vietcong and North Vietnamese in droves, but in the final analysis the ARVN had to win the loyalty of the people in the countryside. If the ARVN failed to win over the peasantry, the Vietcong would continue to regenerate itself through local recruitment. He wrote, “…the main purpose of [U.S. units] defeating the enemy through offensive operations against his main forces and bases must be to provide the opportunity through RD [pacification] to get at the heart of the matter, which is the population of South Vietnam.”[17]

As Westmoreland completed his operational plans, the Joint Chiefs of Staff gave his ground forces two more missions. In addition to fighting the Vietcong and North Vietnamese main forces, conducting operations in the hinterland, and attriting Communist manpower, U.S. forces had to completely defeat the Vietcong insurgency and extend GVN control over all of South Vietnam.[18] Those two final objectives were absolutely daunting. The U.S. might force Hanoi to quit the war, but the Vietcong could still fight on. The insurgency could conceivably go on for years, maybe decades, because the guerrillas could flee to the forested highlands and wait out the Americans. As for extending GVN control over all of South Vietnam, that would be a massive undertaking, especially because U.S. troops would have to reconquer, and hold, some of the most difficult terrain in the world, including the swampy Plain of Reeds, the high-walled Ashau Valley, and the towering mountains west and southwest of Danang. It remained to be seen just how U.S. units would drive the Vietcong out of its remote redoubts and keep them out.

In the first weeks of September, Westmoreland’s strategy paper went from Saigon to Washington for the approval of the administration. Although the strategy had been completed, there still existed a number of unanswered questions related to it. Would U.S. forces be able to find the enemy and destroy his main forces in one of the most inhospitable regions in the world? Would the Vietcong and North Vietnamese match, or exceed, the U.S. troop buildup then underway? What would happen if the GVN failed to win peasant hearts and minds? How would GVN failure at pacification influence the U.S. war against the Communist main forces? How would the war evolve if the majority of the rural population of South Vietnam opposed the U.S. and GVN? Could the U.S. successfully attrite the enemy if the Communist sanctuaries in North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia remained intact? And most importantly, would the American people support the Johnson administration long enough for it to achieve its military objectives in South Vietnam?[19] Presidential adviser Maxwell Taylor thought the two greatest unknowns related to Westmoreland’s strategy were, “…the performance which we could count on from our Vietnamese ally and the reaction of the enemy.”[20]

Although doubts and questions plagued his strategy, General William C. Westmoreland could not be dissuaded from his chosen course. Reflecting the “can do” American attitude of the 1960s, Westmoreland believed American military power would prevail, irrespective of all of the uncertainties. The U.S. would find and destroy the enemy in sufficient numbers to break the Communists’ will to resist, it would defeat the insurgency, it would reoccupy all of South Vietnam, the GVN would succeed at pacification behind the U.S.’s military shield, and the American home front would hold together long enough for the U.S. to win the war.[21]

By the end of September 1965, President Johnson, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, Presidential Adviser Maxwell Taylor, U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., as well as the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Director of Central Intelligence, signed-off on Westmoreland’s concept of operations. America’s top political and military leaders unanimously agreed that Westmoreland’s strategy promised the most effective means of achieving victory in South Vietnam. Only after the Tet Offensive did Westmoreland’s concept of operations become the much-maligned strategy.[22]


[1] Foreign Relations of the United States, (FRUS), 1964-1968, Volume III, Vietnam, June-December, 1965, “Document 1, Telegram From the Commander, Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (Westmoreland) to the Commander in Chief, Pacific (Sharp), June 13, 1965,” (Washington: GPO, 1996), 3.

[2] Ibid. 2.

[3] FRUS, Volume III, Vietnam, June-December, 1965, “Document 38, Memorandum From Secretary of Defense McNamara to President Johnson, July 1, 1965,” 103.

[4] FRUS, Volume III, Vietnam, June-December, 1965, “Document 34, Memorandum Prepared in the Central Intelligence Agency, June 30 1965,” 87.

[5] FRUS, Volume III, Vietnam, June-December, 1965, “Document 41, Memorandum by the Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs (Bundy), July 1, 1965,” 115.

[6] FRUS, Volume III, Vietnam, June-December, 1965, “Document 60, Memorandum of Conversation, July 16, 1965,” 160.

[7] William C. Westmoreland, A Soldier Reports, (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1976), 150.

[8] Ibid. 159.

[9] Ibid. 160.

[10] Michael B. Beschloss, ed., Reaching for Glory: Lyndon Johnson’s Secret White House Tapes, 1964-1965, (New York: Touchstone, 2001), 378.

[11] FRUS, Volume III, Vietnam, June-December, 1965, “Document 35, Memorandum From the President’s Special Assistant for National Security Affairs (Bundy) to Secretary of Defense McNamara, June 30, 1965,” 90.

[12] FRUS, Volume III, Vietnam, June-December, 1965, “Document 34, Memorandum Prepared in the Central Intelligence Agency, June 30 1965,” 87.

[13] FRUS, Volume III, Vietnam, June-December, 1965, “Document 38, Memorandum From Secretary of Defense McNamara to President Johnson, July 1, 1965,” 97.

[14] Vietnam Task Force, Office of the Secretary of Defense, United States – Vietnam Relations, 1945 – 1967, The Pentagon Papers, Parts IV.C.6 through IV.C.8, “IV.C.6.9(a), U.S. Ground Strategy and Force Deployments, 1965-1967, Volume I, 1.

[15] FRUS, Volume III, Vietnam, June-December, 1965, “Document 69, Memorandum From Richard C. Bowman of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Special Assistant for National Security Affairs (Bundy), July 21, 1965,” 185.

[16] Ibid. 186.

[17] Vietnam Task Force, Office of the Secretary of Defense, United States – Vietnam Relations, 1945 – 1967, The Pentagon Papers, Parts IV.C.6 through IV.C.8, “IV.C.6.9(a), U.S. Ground Strategy and Force Deployments, 1965-1967, Volume I, 60.

[18] FRUS, Volume III, Vietnam, June-December, 1965, “Document 130, Memorandum From the Joint Chiefs of Staff to Secretary of Defense McNamara, August 27, 1965,” 357.

[19] Beschloss, Reaching for Glory, 358; Douglas Kinnard, The War Managers: American Generals Reflect on Vietnam, (New York: Da Capo Press, 1991), 67.

[20] Maxwell D. Taylor, Swords and Plowshares: A Memoir, (New York: Da Capo Press, 1972), 348; Vietnam Task Force, Office of the Secretary of Defense, United States – Vietnam Relations, 1945 – 1967, The Pentagon Papers, Parts IV.C.6 through IV.C.8, “IV.C.6.9(a), U.S. Ground Strategy and Force Deployments, 1965-1967, Volume I, 41.

[21] FRUS, Volume III, Vietnam, June-December, 1965, “Document 130, Memorandum From the Joint Chiefs of Staff to Secretary of Defense McNamara, August 27, 1965,” 357.

[22] Vietnam Task Force, Office of the Secretary of Defense, United States – Vietnam Relations, 1945 – 1967, The Pentagon Papers, Parts IV.C.6 through IV.C.8, “IV.C.6.9(a), U.S. Ground Strategy and Force Deployments, 1965-1967, Volume I, 16.

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