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Never overpromise and under deliver. General William Westmoreland should have followed that advice when he addressed the National Press Club fifty years ago today. Instead, the commanding general of U.S. military forces in Vietnam gave his audience an upbeat assessment of the war in South Vietnam, going so far as to say it had reached the point “where the end begins to come into view.” He was tragically wrong.
Westmoreland took charge of the U.S. military effort in Vietnam in March 1964. A highly decorated veteran of World War II and the Korean War, he looked like a general straight out of central casting. Time magazine was so taken with him that it named him its Man of the Year for 1965.
When Westmoreland first took command in Saigon, the United States had fewer than 17,000 military “advisors” on the ground in South Vietnam. Their job was to train and advise the South Vietnamese military in the fight against the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong. Westmoreland continually pressed Washington to send combat troops. He got his wish in March 1965 when the first Marines hit the shores of Da Nang. The American phase of the Vietnam War had begun. But as President John F. Kennedy had predicted just a few years earlier, the result had been like taking a drink—the fix quickly wore off and more troops were needed. By late summer 1967, the United States had 450,000 troops in Vietnam.
The Americanization of the war deepened the U.S. role in Vietnam. It didn’t, however, bring South Vietnam closer to victory. South Vietnamese governments came and went as a series of generals battled for control. Meanwhile, the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese held their own even though the U.S. military owned the skies and enjoyed a lopsided firepower advantage on the ground.
The lack of progress on the battlefield eroded public support for the war. In October 1967, Gallup found for the first time ever that more Americans (46 percent) thought that it had been a mistake to send U.S. troops to fight in Vietnam than thought it hadn’t (44 percent). Perhaps even more significant for a president just a year away from running for re-election, the percentage of Americans doubting the wisdom of the war had doubled from just two years earlier. The trend was not LBJ’s friend.
Discussions inside the administration gave LBJ no reason to believe that he would soon have good news for the American public. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, one of the architects of the Americanization of the war, had concluded by the spring of 1967 that the war couldn’t be won and pressed Johnson to scale back the U.S. effort. Meanwhile, Westmoreland, with the support of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, argued that the war could be won, but only if he sent 200,000 more troops and widened the aerial campaign.
Unable to accept McNamara’s conclusion and reluctant to embrace the military’s push for a wider war, LBJ turned his attention to shoring up public support. He ordered U.S. officials in Saigon to highlight evidence showing that the United States was winning the war. The White House created a group to share favorable information with opinion leaders and news outlets. And at the recommendation of the so-called Wise Men, a group of former senior foreign policy officials convened to advise LBJ, Westmoreland was ordered home to reassure the American public that the war was going well.
Westmoreland willingly took up the task. He had already returned to Washington seven months before at Johnson’s request to give an upbeat speech on the state of the war to a joint session of Congress. That had been the first time in U.S. history that a president had asked a wartime commander to return from the field to speak to Congress.
In his November 21, 1967 address to the National Press Club, Westmoreland was even more upbeat than he had been on Capitol Hill back in April. He assured his audience that “We have reached an important point where the end begins to come into view.” He cited a list of problems plaguing the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong, including an inability to recruit. And lest his fundamental optimism be missed, he ended his speech by invoking his goal to reach Phase IV of the war, when the communists would be on the run:
I am absolutely certain that whereas in 1965 the enemy was winning, today he is certainly losing. We are making progress. We know you want an honorable and early transition to the fourth and last phase. So do your sons and so do I. It lies within our grasp--the enemy’s hopes are bankrupt.
Westmoreland knew that he had put the best face on the war. He later wrote, “I permitted myself the most optimistic appraisal of the way the war was going that I had yet made.” Some of his fellow generals worried he had been too optimistic—and too willing to serve LBJ’s political objectives. As Army Chief of Staff General Harold K. Johnson put it, “Westys trip has gone extremely well, and I only hope that he has not dug a hole for himself with regard to his prognostications. The platform of false prophets is crowded.”
General Johnson turned out to be prescient. Just ten weeks after Westmoreland’s National Press Club speech, the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong launched the Tet Offensive. What Americans saw on television and read in the newspapers looked nothing like the rosy picture Westmoreland had painted. While U.S. and South Vietnamese forces ultimately turned the tide and inflicted punishing losses on the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong, in political terms everything had changed. The end was not in sight, and no one knew when it would be.
On March 22, 1968, Johnson announced that Westmoreland would be leaving Vietnam to take up the post of Army Chief of Staff. Nine days later, LBJ surprised by the nation by saying he would not seek re-election. U.S. troops would fight in Vietnam for another five years.