1968 -- The Year of Decision

William Childs Westmoreland departed Saigon for the last time on 11 June 1968, having commanded MACV since August, 1964. In that time, more than 36,000 Americans had died in Vietnam or elsewhere in the war zone. As COMUSMACV Westmoreland had overseen the huge buildup of American and allied forces in Vietnam. As of 1 July 1968, MACV reported 528,840 U.S. service personnel of all branches in the Republic of Vietnam. Another fifty thousand or so manned ships in the surrounding waters or were stationed on Thai air bases. The U.S. had spent more than 1.5 billion dollars on military construction in Vietnam. Another 386 million had gone to build bases in Thailand.

Westmoreland left Vietnam under a cloud that did not dissipate with the passing of time. Whatever personal misgivings he may have harbored, he had faithfully hewed to the party line before Congress and the American people. South Vietnam had survived, but the Tet Offensive not only undercut his personal credibility but further weakened the already shaky support for the war. It now seemed clear that, given the political climate in the U.S. and battlefield realities in Vietnam, winning the war in the conventional sense was not possible—if indeed it had ever been. The new U.S. objective, as yet not clearly enunciated, would be to negotiate an end to the fighting, execute a face-saving withdrawal, and somehow leave behind a non-communist South Vietnam. As the Washington Post put it, Westmoreland had been “a good soldier in an almost impossible spot.” In his Report on the War in Vietnam, written as he prepared to relinquish command, he had labelled 1968 as “The Year of Decision.” It proved to be just that, but the verdict was not to be what he hoped or imagined.

Abrams’ “One War”

Westmoreland’s designated successor was Gen. Creighton W. Abrams, who had already served as deputy COMUSMACV for more than a year. Like Westmoreland, Abrams was a West Point graduate, both of them in the class of ’36. Although he would not officially take over until 3 July, in Westmoreland’s absence he had essentially been running the show since early June. 

Creighton Abrams presented a marked contrast to his rather straight-laced predecessor. Commander of a WWII tank outfit in George Patton’s Third Army, Abrams brought to mind much of the rugged, no-nonsense fighting qualities of his one-time boss. Although he would labor under most of the same constraints that had frustrated Westmoreland, Abrams approached his mission in a different manner. Most significantly, he preached the concept of “one war”, wherein equal emphasis was put on military operations, improvement of the South Vietnamese armed forces, and pacification "all of which are interrelated so that the better we do in one, the more our chance of progress in the others.” Abrams also counseled his subordinates against excessive use of artillery and airstrikes, warning that the attendant, if unintentional, loss of life and destruction of property among noncombatants prevented the winning of “hearts and minds” so vital to any long-term success in this most unconventional of wars.  

In operational matters, Abrams emphatically endorsed the closing of Khe Sanh combat base, although in consideration of the questioning and criticism sure to follow, that had to be done with as much discretion as possible. In explanation, he pointed to the renewed build-up of enemy forces in I CTZ and the need to free up as many mobile battalions as possible to counter the threat. The last troops at Khe Sanh were evacuated without incident on 7 July. The abandonment of Khe Sanh in effect spelled the end of the “McNamara Line” and the idea of a manned infiltration barrier. The marines, for their part, were more than happy to shed the role of fish in the proverbial barrel.