Westmoreland’s Big Unit War, Part IV: The Search and Destroy Strategy Comes Under Fire

In the fall of 1967, a number of prominent public figures began to question whether General William C. Westmoreland’s big unit war would ever achieve U.S. objectives in South Vietnam. Several of these individuals voiced their concerns to President Johnson on November 2, during the second day of meetings at the White House of a group collectively known as the Wisemen.

One of the Wisemen, former U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam, Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., told President Johnson that the primary reason for declining domestic support for the war was the high number of casualties being inflicted on U.S. forces by the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese Army. If casualties could be brought down, the home front could be steadied. With the recent defeat of Lt. Col. Terry Allen’s Jr.’s battalion in Binh Duong Province possibly on his mind, Lodge said, “An exclusive military victory is not conceivable to me.” He then went on to say that instead of Westmoreland’s current concept of operations, the U.S. should pursue a “…split up and keep off balance…” strategy. Lodge argued that such a strategy, “…utilizes the smaller units and means less casualties…[and] also diminishes the number of refugees.” In other words, abandoning the big unit war would not only stabilize the home front, it would, by reducing collateral damage and refugee numbers, enhance South Vietnam’s increasingly fragile social stability.[1]

Another former U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam, Maxwell Taylor, told everyone around the large conference table that the U.S. should re-position American troops away from South Vietnam’s frontiers. Instead of deploying U.S. units in search and destroy operations across the Central Highlands and adjacent to the Cambodian border, where the terrain, triple-canopy jungle, and weather negated U.S. advantages in mobility and firepower, the U.S. should deploy its troops to the western edge of the coastal plain, next to the Vietnamese piedmont. In the open country along what military strategists referred to as the demographic frontier, U.S. troops would be better able to deploy their tanks, aircraft, and artillery against Vietcong and North Vietnamese units attempting to enter the populated lowlands to disrupt U.S. and GVN pacification operations.[2]

Johnson’s friend and confidant Abe Fortas suggested that a thorough review be undertaken of Westmoreland’s strategy. He also seconded Lodge’s recommendation on the use of smaller patrols. He remarked, “I wonder if all questions have been asked about the nature of our military action in the South. I think we should explore a greater use of the small military units in the South.”[3]

Although provided with solid strategic advice from very knowledgeable men, President Johnson refused to seriously consider their ideas. The president dismissed the suggestions of Lodge, Taylor and Fortas by noting that the Joint Chiefs of Staff had recently informed him that, “…we can’t do anything more than we are doing in the South now….”[4]

Why did Johnson reject the advice of the Wisemen? In all likelihood, he did so for personal political reasons. He recognized that a change in the U.S.’s ground war strategy in late 1967 or early 1968 would have been a tacit admission that Westmoreland’s big unit war, now in its third year of implementation, had been a failure. Such an acknowledgement, after Westmoreland’s strategy had already cost the U.S. 20,000 lives, would only harm Johnson politically, diminishing his chances of re-election in November 1968. So Johnson defended Westmoreland’s strategy to the Wisemen, not because it was working, but because had he favored a different strategy at that time his future political prospects would have been imperiled.

On November 10, former National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy, likely influenced by the bloodletting then taking place at Dak To in the Central Highlands, wrote Johnson a memo expressing his thoughts on Westmoreland’s strategy. Referring to the previous week’s meeting of the Wisemen, Bundy wrote, “I found it interesting and troubling that both [Lodge and Taylor]…raised important question about the military tactics now being followed….” He continued, “If the battles near the borders are not wise, or if search and destroy operations in heavily-populated areas are likely to be politically destructive, then the plans of the field commander must be seriously questioned. I see no alternative here but to have a very carefully prepared discussion with General Westmoreland….” Bundy then made a startling observation, “…how many of us could explain what Westy’s strategy really is?”[5] This last statement implied that the U.S. civilian officials charged with overseeing the war in South Vietnam did not know how Westmoreland planned on defeating the insurgency.

On November 16, Undersecretary of State Nicholas Katzenbach, aware of the high number of U.S. casualties at Dak To, added his voice to those now urging a review of U.S. ground strategy. Specifically, Katzenbach recommended to the preident that the U.S. quit trying to “…extend GVN dominion, direction and control over [all of] South Vietnam.” He didn’t believe U.S. forces would ever completely eject the Vietcong and North Vietnamese from South Vietnam because the country was too big, the environment posed too many challenges to U.S. forces, and the Communists had too many supporters who were willing to hide them in their villages, hamlets, and hooches. Katzenbach felt strongly that the U.S. wasted man-hours, lives, and precious resources chasing Communist units all across South Vietnam in an attempt to run them to ground. Westmoreland hadn’t been able to push the Communists out of South Vietnam in two and a half years of sustained combat and he would not be able to do it in the years ahead.

Katzenbach argued that the U.S. should direct its limited resources to strengthening the South Vietnamese military and government so that the South Vietnamese could survive on their own after a U.S. withdrawal. The Undersecretary of State did not provide any details on how the South Vietnamese would actually be strengthened. But if Johnson decided to adopt Katzenbach’s limited role for U.S. forces in South Vietnam, then the president should also consider changing the U.S.’s overall ground strategy. Katzenbach concluded his memo by stating, “…I would anticipate that such a change in objective and mission should mean that MACV would deploy its forces so as to minimize their involvement with the population, and to reduce substantially American involvement in those measures which should be the GVN’s responsibility. It would probably mean: a rigorous review of free bombing zones…[and] dramatic new efforts to reduce civilian casualties….”[6]

Like so many others advising the President, Katzenbach believed the big unit war, with its focus on attrition, had failed and would continue to fail. Not only that, but Westmoreland’s strategy had generated mass civilian casualties, inflicted extensive damage on South Vietnam’s agricultural economy, persuaded hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese to join the Vietcong, and convinced millions of Americans to oppose U.S. policy.

Journalists and soldiers in South Vietnam understood far earlier than the Wisemen the futility of endlessly searching the South Vietnamese countryside for the Vietcong and North Vietnamese. In September 1966, journalist S.L.A. Marshall went along with U.S. troops on a search and destroy operation in Binh Dinh Province’s Soui Ca Valley. “Our people went, they saw, and they concurred that they had done little and learned less from the campaign.” According to Marshall, “It was an exercise in frustration…At times, bodies of the enemy would be seen, in platoon size or larger, khaki-clad or in black pajamas. Invariably, the sightings would be at a distance. Before the Americans could close, the enemy force would have vanished into thin air.”[7] The operation in the Suoi Ca Valley lasted a week and the U.S. battalion, “…encountered no resistance except enemy booby traps…with a loss of three men wounded and none killed.”[8]

In subsequent years, Marshall continued to criticize the search and destroy strategy. After accompanying U.S. troops in the field in 1966 and 1967, he observed, “The big game [of search and destroy] would go on much as before – a grisly form of hide-and-seek played blindfolded in a dark room, the encroaching forest. Doing anything worthwhile would always be a matter guessing right. To win [against the Vietcong]…one would have to know the one path that the quarry would take, hit the exact spot where he had settled unaware of any immediate danger, or else be favored by Lady Luck. Otherwise, the enemy would vanish on either side of the trail and melt into nothingness.”[9] Marshall knew that a sympathetic rural population provided the guerrillas with a form of camouflage. Following an operation by the 1st Cavalry Division, he wrote, “…the enemy forces had donned black pajamas and conical hats, dissolved into small parties, and stolen away. The situation was exasperating.”[10]

In his survey of military officers after the war, Douglas Kinnard discovered that, “Thirty-two percent of those queried asserted that the search and destroy concept was “not sound.” Another fifty-one percent believed that the execution of search and destroy tactics “…left something to be desired.”[11] Unfortunately, those officers, many of them careerists, did little to try and alter the strategy while serving in Vietnam. Instead, they obediently carried it out, with tragic consequences for the men under their command.

Common soldiers had the same opinion as their officers about the ineffectiveness of Westmoreland’s strategy. Trooper Steve Fredrick remembered that the Vietcong concealed their movements so well that they were invisible to American eyes. “You hardly ever saw them. You’d get fire from them and you knew they were out there, but you never saw them.”[12]

Carl Quickmire of the Tropic Lightening Division recalled that his unit’s missions, “…essentially amounted to going out and beating the jungle every day and every night looking for the enemy…Despite all the highfalutin gadgets, intelligence for the most part was extremely poor. We did not know who we were looking for or where to look, in most cases.”[13] Gary Ernst, also of the Tropic Lightning Division, recollected, “On some of these search and destroy missions, we often seemed to be right behind Charlie, probably because of the noise our tracks [APCs] made. We came upon base camps and tunnel complexes: Once, rice was still cooking. But they could always just get away.”[14]

Jim Ross of the 25th Infantry Division confirmed what Alain Enthoven with the Department of Defense had discovered through his statistical analysis, namely, the enemy initiated most battles. Ross stated, “Naturally, we didn’t have many toe-to-toe battles. When we did, the enemy almost always had the opportunity of striking the first blow. That’s one of the main disadvantages of mechanized forces. You move around a lot, you make a terrific target, you can be seen from quite a distance, and you can be heard from even farther distance, so they had ample time to interdict us if they chose to do so.”[15]

Marion Lee Kempner, with the 1st Marine Division in I Corps, wrote his parents in September 1966, “Sorry to be so long in writing, but I have just come back from an abortion [a play on the word “operation”] called Operation Jackson. I spent a three-day “walk in the sun” (and paddies and fields and mountains and impenetrable jungle and saw grass and ants, and screwed-up radios and no word, and deaf radio operators, and no chow, and too many C-rations, and blisters and torn trousers and jungle rot, and wet socks and sprained ankles and no heels, and, and, and)…The only person in the whole battalion to see a VC was, of course, me.” And the VC got away.[16]

Not surprisingly, Westmoreland disagreed with those who criticized his big unit war. He did not think he needed to scrap his strategy or even modify it. He believed it was working. His strategy was slowly chewing up the enemy. Westmoreland refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the arguments of the naysayers in the Department of Defense and at the CIA’s Langley headquarters who believed the Communist manpower pool would never be depleted at a level sufficient enough to force Hanoi and the Vietcong to quit the struggle. So, while a number of presidential advisors urged Johnson to either review U.S. strategy in South Vietnam or adopt a new strategy altogether, Westmoreland continued to fight his war the only way he knew how.

Nonetheless, the cumulative weight of advice from Lodge, Taylor, Fortas, Bundy, and Katzenbach, combined with the high U.S. casualties resulting from the Dak To battles, had an effect on the president’s thinking. On December 18, 1967, Johnson wrote a memorandum for his own files, knowing posterity might look favorably upon its contents. In contrast to his recent public pronouncements, the memorandum did not possess a triumphalist tone. Rather, its words reflected a president still searching for a way to achieve victory in Vietnam. In the memo, Johnson revealed that he was now open to altering the U.S.’s ground war strategy and tactics. He wrote, “…we should review the conduct of military operations in South Vietnam with a view to reducing U.S. casualties, accelerating the turnover of responsibility to the GVN, and working toward less destruction and fewer casualties in South Vietnam.”

Johnson’s thoughts about altering the U.S. ground war strategy in South Vietnam would not be made public until long after his death, so he suffered no negative political consequences for privately admitting an awful truth: Westmoreland’s big unit war had been a failure.[17]


[1] Foreign Relations of the United States [FRUS], 1964-1968, Volume V, Vietnam, 1967, “Document 377, Memorandum from the President’s Assistant (Jones) to President Johnson, November 2, 1967,” (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 2002), 960.

[2] FRUS, 1964-1968, Volume V, Vietnam, 1967, “Document 377, Memorandum from the President’s Assistant (Jones) to President Johnson,” 963.

[3] Ibid., 965.

[4] Ibid., 965.

[5] FRUS, 1964-1968, Volume V, Vietnam, 1967, “Document 393, Memorandum from McGeorge Bundy to President Johnson, November 10, 1967,” 1011.

[6] FRUS, 1964-1968, Volume V, Vietnam, 1967, “Document 401, Memorandum from the Under Secretary of State (Katzenbach) to President Johnson, November 16, 1967,” 1033-1034.

[7] S.L.A. Marshall, The Fields of Bamboo: Dong Tre, Trung Luong and Hoa Hoi, Three Battles Just Beyond the South China Sea, (New York: The Dial Press, 1971), 6.

[8] Ibid., 222.

[9] S.L.A. Marshall, Bird: A Christmastide Battle. 1968. Reprint, (Nashville, Tennessee: The Battery Press, 1983), 197.

[10] Marshall, Fields of Bamboo, 168.

[11] Douglas Kinnard, The War Managers: American Generals Reflect on Vietnam, (New York: Da Capo Press, 1991), 45.

[12] James R. Ebert, A Life in a Year: The American Infantryman in Vietnam, 1993, Reprint, (Novato, California: Presidio Press, 2004), 184.

[13] Eric Bergerud, Red Thunder, Tropic Lightning: The World of a Combat Division in Vietnam, 1993, Reprint, (New York: Penguin Books, 1994), 106.

[14] Ibid., 110.

[15] Ibid., 125.

[16] Bernard Edelman, ed., Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1985), 61-62.

[17] FRUS, 1964-1968, Volume V, Vietnam, 1967, “Document 441, Memorandum for the File by President Johnson,” December 18, 1967, 1120.

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