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Westmoreland: The General Who Lost Vietnam Hardcover – October 11, 2011


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 1 edition (October 11, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9780547518268
  • ISBN-13: 978-0547518268
  • ASIN: 0547518269
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.3 x 1.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (87 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #686,506 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Amazon Exclusive: A Q&A with Author Lewis Sorley

Q: How can the loss of Vietnam be blamed on Westmoreland?

A: He served for four years as U.S. commander there during the crucial period of the buildup of American ground forces, a flood that eventually reached 543,400 due to Westmoreland’s repeated requests for more and more troops. Given a free hand in deciding how to conduct the war within South Vietnam, he chose to pursue an unavailing war of attrition, which failed miserably. Westmoreland thus squandered four years of support by Congress, much of the American people, and even the media.


Q: How did a man as limited as Westmoreland achieve such high rank and position?

A: Fueled by ambition, Westmoreland drove himself relentlessly. He was of impressive military mien, energetic, effective at self-promotion, and skillful in cultivating influential sponsors. From his earliest days of service he led his contemporaries, was admired and advanced by his seniors, and progressed rapidly upward. Westmoreland’s strengths eventually propelled him to a level beyond his understanding and abilities.

Q: What was Westmoreland’s approach as commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam?

A: Westmoreland decided to conduct a war of attrition in which the measure of merit would be body count, the number of enemy killed. His premise was that if he killed enough of their soldiers, the enemy would lose heart and cease its aggression against South Vietnam. He went about this primarily through the use of search and destroy tactics, often involving very large operations in the jungles near South Vietnam’s western borders with Laos and Cambodia.

Meanwhile he neglected other crucially important tasks, such as strengthening South Vietnam’s military forces and rooting out the covert infrastructure that enabled the enemy to use coercion and terror to dominate South Vietnam’s rural populace. He was successful in killing a large number of enemy troops, but this did not represent the progress he claimed; the communists simply replaced their losses and continued to fight. Westmoreland was on a treadmill.

Q: What are the sources for your account of Westmoreland’s life and career?

A: Westmoreland himself provided extensive—and revealing—archival material. His papers, on deposit at the University of South Carolina, run to many thousands of pages. I spent four months going through them.

I interviewed about 175 people who had known and served with Westmoreland over the years. One of the most important, and most helpful, was General Bruce Palmer Jr., with whom I spoke dozens of times. Having been Westmoreland’s West Point classmate, then having served under him in Vietnam and subsequently as his Vice Chief of Staff, General Palmer was an authoritative, sympathetic, and invaluable source of both factual information and sensitive insights.

Q: What do you hope will be the lasting impression of General Westmoreland?

A: It is not a happy story, but I believe it is an important, even essential, one. Unless and until we understand William Childs Westmoreland, we will never fully understand what happened to us in Vietnam, or why.

In the end, of course, this is the story of an officer whose strengths propelled him to a level of responsibility beyond his capacity. From early days prideful and image-conscious, Westmoreland developed into a man of incredible industry, driving himself to achieve, forever in a rush, with unbounded ambition and no apparent sense of personal limitations—doing it by the book, even though he hadn’t read the book or studied at any of the Army’s great schools. His ultimate failure would have earned him more sympathy, it seems certain, had he not personally been so fundamentally to blame by reason of his relentless self-promotion.

Those who have long been Westmoreland admirers and supporters may be offended by an account that, as they will view it, tarnishes his reputation. But many others, I believe, will welcome a factual, detailed, and well-documented explanation of how and why he failed so completely in his most important assignment; what that failure cost us as a nation; and, most important, what it cost the ill-fated South Vietnamese, who risked all and lost all.

Review

"This is a terrific book, lively and brisk, and surprisingly interesting. How could this deeply flawed, limited man rise so high in the U.S. Army? This will be the definitive book on Westmoreland, and a must read for anyone who tries to understand the Vietnam War."

-Thomas E. Ricks, author of Fiasco  and The Gamble

 

" Lewis Sorley's brilliant portrait of General Westmoreland helps us understand why our war lasted so long and ended as it did. This is biography at its finest."

- Bui Diem, South Vietnamese Ambassador to the United States (1967-1972)

 

"A riveting history of how ambition corrupted soldierly virtues and led to slyness, hubris and national disaster. A scorching indictment of how generals covered up for each other."

-Bing West, author of THE WRONG WAR: Grit, Strategy, and the Way Out of Afghanistan 

 

"To understand the Vietnam War in its totality one must logically try to understand General Westmoreland.  Dr. Lewis Sorley has made an enormous contribution by revealing General Westmoreland’s complex personality and the role it played in U.S. foreign policy."

-Melvin R. Laird, former Secretary of Defense and nine-term Member of Congress

 

"Reaching beyond the surface to penetrate the enigma of General William C. Westmoreland, Lewis Sorley gathers the recollections of Westy’s Army colleagues, the man’s personal papers, and official records to tell the story of a general who has remained opaque despite the many debates over his role in the Vietnam war. Eye-opening and sometimes maddening, Sorley’s Westmoreland is not to be missed."

-John Prados, author of Vietnam: The History of an Unwinnable War

More About the Author

Lewis Sorley, a former soldier, is a graduate of West Point and holds a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins. His Army service included tank and armored cavalry units in Germany, Vietnam, and the U.S., Pentagon staff duty, and teaching at West Point and the Army War College.

His books include two biographies, Thunderbolt: General Creighton Abrams and the Army of His Times and Honorable Warrior: General Harold K. Johnson and the Ethics of Command. The Johnson biography received the Army Historical Foundation's Distinguished Book Award. An excerpt of the Abrams biography won the Peterson Prize as the year's best scholarly article on military history. He has also been awarded the General Andrew Goodpaster Prize for military scholarship by the American Veterans Center.

His book A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. His edited work Vietnam Chronicles: The Abrams Tapes, 1968-1972 received the Army Historical Foundation's Trefry Prize for providing a unique perspective on the art of command. He has also written Honor Bright: History and Origins of the West Point Honor Code and System and edited a two-volume work entitled Press On! Selected Works of General Donn A. Starry. He is currently researching a biography of General William C. Westmoreland.

Customer Reviews

Far too often, the book depends on anacdotes and hearsay as source material.
Mark bennett
Anyone with the slightest interest in the Vietnam War would benefit greatly from reading his thoroughly researched and extremely well written book.
Barry Sparks
Westy Westmoreland and I admire him less after having read Lewis Sorley excellent biography of him.
Sgt. Rock

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

89 of 103 people found the following review helpful By Hrafnkell Haraldsson VINE VOICE on September 12, 2011
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I grew up during the Vietnam War. I was seven years old when General William Westmoreland was sent to Vietnam by LBJ to take charge of things there. I was eleven when he lost his job and by then, had lost us the war. Vietnam was in the news the entire time, on TV, in the paper, in Time Magazine - as was Westmoreland's iconic chin. Being the son of military parents I'd early gotten the history bug and I was fascinated by what was taking place over in Southeast Asia, even if I didn't understand it well. As I grew older, and things over there grew worse, I began to wonder how we could possibly lose such a war (as I thought it was) against such a small country.

Lewis Sorely's "Westmoreland: The General Who Lost Vietnam" will tell you how. Sorely has the credentials for this book. He is himself a graduate of West Point. He served in Vietnam. He even served in the office of the Army Chief of Staff, General William C. Westmoreland, and taught at West Point. This isn't just a book by some journalist trying to get at the bottom of things. Sorely has been "at the bottom of things" and he has done the leg work over a period of years, talking to 175 people in his search for the events he here recounts.

Sorely makes a point of stating at the outset his premise: that we need to understand Westmoreland in order to understand what happened in Vietnam. And so he begins at the beginning, with Westmoreland's childhood and early experiences, his pre-war service in the field artillery at Fort Sill, then Hawaii, and finally with the 9th Infantry Division at Fort Bragg.
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41 of 49 people found the following review helpful By Nathan Webster TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on September 11, 2011
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
This is an excellent, close look at one of the most failed Generals in the history of the US military. At least Benedict Arnold was defeated before he did much damage.

The tragedy of Westmoreland is best introduced by author Lewis Sorley in Westmoreland's role as First Captain of his 1936 West Point class. As the top student leader, he participated in the shunning - as in, nobody spoke to him on personal level for four years - of black classmate Benjamin O. Davis, later a Tuskeege Airman, and an Air Force general himself. Westmoreland excuses himself in decades-later letters to friends, explaining that it was "the times," and that Davis had to expect the treatment he got.

It's true, in 1936, Davis probably did expect it, and he got it. And it really wasn't up to 22-year-old Westmoreland to change race relations in the country.

But, the point is he didn't even try. He was not prepared to think outside the box, or at any other level than what he had been trained to believe as an upper-crust South Carolinian. He was not going to challenge the conventional wisdom of race relations in 1936 (and it's more likely than not that he agreed with it anyway). So if his role as First Captain froze out one of his own classmates, that was simply the way the world worked.

When he arrived in Vietnam - by all of Sorley's accounts a seasoned, effective division commander and WWII veteran - of course he fell back to the conventional wisdom. Since there was no specific territory to be won or lost, then of course he would fall back to the next best thing: a body count, since it was something he could measure success by.
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95 of 119 people found the following review helpful By R. W. Levesque on October 3, 2011
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Although I agree with the author's statement that, "unless and until we understand William Childs Westmoreland, we will never fully understand what happened to us in Vietnam, or why," I don't believe the author achieved this goal.

There are several reasons why I believe this book does not live up to its own expectations. My first issue is Lewis Sorley's over-reliance on memoirs and oral histories in an effort to prove his points. The problem with this approach is you wind up with a "he-said-she-said" argument based on the opinions of those involved. Without context, whether these individuals supported Westmoreland or not, this comes across as a group of men finding fault after the fact.

Which leads to my second issue: lack of context and analysis. The book is a basic narrative that merely follows Westmoreland's life as if placed on a timeline. In fact, at times it comes across as a string of anecdotes, many of which seem out of place within the author's narrative. Without context or analysis you realize you're just reading data.

In fact, the first part of the book, which focuses on Westmoreland's pre-Vietnam life, could almost be dropped in its entirety. The author does not provide any insight into how his subject's life before Vietnam influenced or created the man who commanded MACV. For example, Sorley seems to make a big deal of Westmoreland's experience in Korea, but after reading through several implied "key" events, again without context, the author doesn't pull the threads together to let the reader know what impact this may, or apparently may not, have had on Westmoreland in Vietnam.
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