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Proponents of War
US Dissent
General William Westmoreland was one of the most prominent, yet controversial players in the Vietnam War. A born leader, Westmoreland was more studied than spontaneous. He stuck to straight rules, rather than looking at the larger context of the war. This, in the end, would cost him and his soldiers greatly.

Westmoreland emerged from World War II with quite a renowned reputation for his military skills. Things quickly changed, though, when he entered Lyndon Johnson’s cabinet in 1964. Elected as the new commander of U.S. military advisers in South Vietnam, the pressure immediately begin to mount. Filling the shoes for MacArthur, Westmoreland was left with a full plate. He had one goal, and that was to win the war. Nothing but victory would satisfy him or his colleagues. Unfortunately, these men never defined what victory meant. Was it by body count or narrowing the influence of Communism?

Westmoreland, along with many other respected military leaders, had never encountered the kind of military environment that existed in Vietnam. It was a war without front lines, without trenches, without any foreseeable end. The enemy was indistinguishable from the United States’ South Vietnamese allies. Undoubtedly, this only contributed to the desperation of the war. Every new maneuver that Westmoreland and his colleagues thought up seemed to dig them even deeper. For the first time in U.S. War history an army that seemed to have half their capabilities was ridiculing textbook military strategies.

While Westmoreland sought to blockade and invade North Vietnam, and then following up by seizing part of Laos, President Johnson continuously vetoed what he thought to be risky plans. LBJ believed that these kinds of actions would only prompt China to send troops to aid the North Vietnamese enemies.

Westmoreland, in the face of continuous vetoed plans, opted for importing larger and larger numbers of U.S. soldiers. Once simply advisors to the South Vietnamese government, the U.S. now entered the tropical battlefield. Westmoreland devised what was called the "search and destroy" strategy. This strategy ordered helicopter-borne troops to find and erase all evidence of the largest enemy units. The goals of the war soon became blurred. MACV, the Military Assistance Command of Vietnam were suddenly blinded by body counts, kill ratios, and all sorts of statistical information. With no definition of what constituted winning the war, the men in uniform were left with no direction. Without direction, the increased amount of soldiers only meant an increased amount of death.

Unsurprisingly, people back home were growing more and more impatient. A once highly supported military general, Westmoreland’s image resembled that of a murderer. While two years prior he had been Time Magazine’s Man of the Year, by 1967 the sound of his name sparked resentment. The once praising college campuses now deemed him a war criminal after he called them "unpatriotic" for protesting the failing war. With U.S. troops in Vietnam approaching the half million mark, the American death toll at 15,000, and the explosion of the anti-war movement, American patriotism seemed to reach an all time low. A once trusting American public had come to realize that the words "trust me" were far from comforting.

Astonishingly, by the time the Tet offensive rolled around in 1968 Westmoreland seemed angered that the American public was so shocked. A man, who had paraded the progress to the American people, couldn’t understand why people were outraged. The unexpected extremeness of Tet, increased by television cameras and media, definitely seemed contradictory to the way the Government officials had painted the war. This Climactic event not only changed the Vietnam War in changed the way U.S. citizens viewed the people they put their trust in. Westmoreland, without a doubt, played a huge part in this image of deception.

Soon after Tet, due to his increased credibility gap, his deputy, Creighton Abrams, replaced Westmoreland. Till this day Westmoreland swears the war had been nobly fought but had been undermined by the media. The American public, however, has a very different and lasting impression from the war. Whether this was due to sewed media coverage or misleading political figures, one can’t say. What is clear, however, is that the dynamics between civilian and government official has forever changed.




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Last Update: 11 May 2000
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