A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam

A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam

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by Lewis Sorley

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Neglected by scholars and journalists alike, the years of conflict in Vietnam from 1968 to 1975 offer surprises not only about how the war was fought, but about what was achieved. Drawing from thousands of hours of previously unavailable (and still classified) tape-recorded meetings between the highest levels of the American military command in Vietnam, A Better War


Neglected by scholars and journalists alike, the years of conflict in Vietnam from 1968 to 1975 offer surprises not only about how the war was fought, but about what was achieved. Drawing from thousands of hours of previously unavailable (and still classified) tape-recorded meetings between the highest levels of the American military command in Vietnam, A Better War is an insightful, factual, and superbly documented history of these final years. Through his exclusive access to authoritative materials, award-winning historian Lewis Sorley highlights the dramatic differences in conception, conduct, and-at least for a time-results between the early and later years of the war. Among his most important findings is that while the war was being lost at the peace table and in the U.S. Congress, the soldiers were winning on the ground. Meticulously researched and movingly told, A Better War sheds new light on the Vietnam War.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Using a host of oral interviews, 455 tape recordings made in Vietnam during the years 1968-1972 and numerous other sources, military historian Sorley has produced a first-rate challenge to the conventional wisdom about American military performance in Vietnam. Essentially, this is a close examination of the years during which General Creighton Abrams was in command, having succeeded William Westmoreland. Sorley contends that Abrams completely transformed the war effort and in the process won the war on the battlefield. The North Vietnamese 1968 Tet offensive was bloodily repulsed, he explains, as was a similar offensive in 1969. Together, the 1970 American incursion into Cambodia and a 1971 Laotian operation succeeded in reducing enemy combat effectiveness. Renewed American bombing of the North and Abrams's use of air power to assist ground operations further reduced Hanoi's ability to wage war. Sorley argues that the combination of anti-war protests in America and a complete misunderstanding of the actual combat situation by the diplomats negotiating the 1973 Paris accords wasted American military victories. In spite of drug use and other problems, Sorley maintains, the army in Vietnam performed capably and efficiently, but in vain, for South Vietnam was sold out by the 1973 cease-fire, America's pullout and the failure of Congress to provide further military assistance to the South. Sure to provoke both passionate and reasoned objection, Sorley's book is as important a reexamination of the operational course of the war as Robert McNamara's In Retrospect is of the conflict's moral and political history. Maps and photos not seen by PW. (June) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Jeffrey Record
...[A] comprehensive and long-overdue examination of the immediate post-Tet offensive years, perhaps the most fascinating years of the war.
The New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
A fawning paean to General Creighton Abrams, Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker, and former CIA chief William Colby and their "stewardship" of the Vietnam War from 1968 to 1975. The stab-in-the-back theory is alive and well in Sorley's (Thunderbolt: General Creighton Abrams and the Army of His Times, 1992, etc.) heavily footnoted but biased and flawed analysis of the post-1968 Vietnam War. Sorley's heroes are Abrams, Bunker, Colby, and others who worked to turn the war over to the South Vietnamese. His villains are those he claims subverted that effort: Congress (especially Ted Kennedy), the antiwar movement (especially Jane Fonda), and the American media. In making this weak argument, Sorley lionizes virtually every action taken by his heroes and demonizes the actions of those he considers villains. His sections on Congress, the antiwar movement, and the media are brief, facile, and one-sided. His analyses of Abrams, Bunker, et al., are long, worshipful, and one-sided. Sorley contends that by late 1970 the Americans and South Vietnamese had won the war, a victory snatched away by a defeatist Congress and abetted by the antiwar movement and the media, particularly Walter Cronkite. In focusing on the war's last eight years, Sorley sets out to right a wrong: "Most of the better-known treatments of the Vietnam War," he says, "as a whole have given relatively little consideration to these later years." But he sabotages his own argument by providing almost no background on the war, even though the US became involved in the area in 1950. He assesses the post-1968 period virtually in a vacuum. And what came before had a great deal to do with how the war was prosecuted afterward, includingthe actions of those in Congress, the antiwar movement, and the media. A partisan, wholly unconvincing attempt to explain the Communist victory in Vietnam. (16 pages b&w photos, not seen; 5 maps)

From the Publisher

"Sorley's book is as important a reexamination of the operational course of the war as Robert McNamara's In Retrospect is of the conflict's moral and political history."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"An extraordinary piece of work that is bound to become a valuable part of historical documentation about the war in Vietnam. The first to set the record straight concerning the outcome of that conflict."—H. Norman Schwarzkopf, General, U.S. Army, Retired

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Chapter One


When, in January 1964, General William C. Westmoreland was sent out to Vietnam as deputy to General Paul Harkins—and became, a few months later, his successor in command of U.S. forces there—he was chosen from a slate of four candidates presented to President Lyndon Johnson. The others proposed were General Harold K. Johnson, who instead became Army Chief of Staff; General Creighton Abrams, who was assigned as Vice Chief of Staff to Johnson; and General Bruce Palmer, Jr., who replaced Johnson as the Army's Deputy Chief of Staff for Military Operations. The choice of Westmoreland was a fateful one in terms of how the war would be fought. As later events demonstrated conclusively, the other three candidates were of one mind on that matter, all differing radically from Westmoreland's approach.

    Beginning in the spring of 1965, Westmoreland repeatedly requested additional troops, the better to prosecute his self-devised strategy of attrition warfare. Simply stated, his intention was to inflict on the enemy more casualties than they could tolerate, thereby forcing them to abandon efforts to subjugate South Vietnam. A key element of this approach was reaching the "crossover point," the point at which allied forces were causing more casualties than the enemy could replace, whether through recruitment and impressment in South Vietnam or infiltration from North Vietnam. At a February 1966 conference with President Lyndon Johnson in Honolulu, Westmoreland had been given an explicit directive to achieve this goal, to demonstrate that he could make good on his chosen strategy of attrition. "Attrit by year's end, Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces at a rate as high as their capability to put men in the field," he was told. While Westmoreland eventually claimed to have accomplished that mission, in fact—despite horrendous losses—the enemy buildup continued throughout his tenure, as did Westmoreland's requests for more and more troops to meet what he once called his "relatively modest requirements."

    Westmoreland often predicted that the enemy was going to run out of men, but in the event it turned out to be the United States that did so, or at least found it extremely difficult to deploy more forces in the face of reluctance to call up reserve forces and pressures to reduce draft calls. Resistance to calling reserves was a constant during Lyndon Johnson's presidency, a stance apparently dictated by unwillingness to have the war affect the lives of millions of ordinary citizens and families affiliated with the reserves. Ironically, that impact fell instead on those who were drafted or volunteered for service. Meanwhile, failure to call up reserve forces had an adverse impact on all the services, and especially the Army, since all contingency plans for deployments of any magnitude had included at least partial reliance on mobilized reserves.

    Types of units found primarily in the reserve components and needed in Vietnam now had to be created from scratch, while the existing units and seasoned leaders in the reserves remained unavailable. Instead the expansion of forces consisted, as Creighton Abrams once observed, "entirely of privates and second lieutenants," resulting in progressive decline of experience and maturity of the force, particularly at junior levels of leadership. This in turn seems directly related to later problems of indiscipline in the services.

    It is significant that, even before Tet 1968, the administration had declined to add more troops, rejecting Westmoreland's request of the previous year for another increment of 200,000. In part this may have reflected declining political will and the effects of a growing antiwar sentiment, but widespread realization—even among those who supported the war—that Westmoreland's approach was not achieving significant results also spawned unwillingness simply to escalate the level of confrontation with no assurance that anything would be gained in the process.

    Losses imposed on the enemy had been inflicted through concentration on what was often referred to as the "war of the big battalions," an operational approach emphasizing multibattalion, and sometimes even multidivision, sweeps through remote jungle areas in an effort to find the enemy and force him to stand and fight. These "search-and-destroy" operations were costly in terms of time, effort, and matériel, but often disappointing in terms of results. The reality was that the enemy could avoid combat when he chose; accept it when and where he found it advantageous to do so; and break contact at will as a means of controlling casualties. He was aided in this by the use of sanctuaries in adjacent Laos and Cambodia, off limits to allied forces because of political restraints. His principal logistical support route, nicknamed the Ho Chi Minh Trail, also branched out into South Vietnam from main arteries spiking down through those adjoining countries.

    Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge reflected some of the frustration this situation induced in a June 1966 cable to Lyndon Johnson. "The best estimate is that 20,000 men of the Army of North Vietnam have come into South Vietnam since January," he wrote, "and as far as I can learn, we can't find them."

    Other costs derived from the single-minded concentration on the Main Force war—notably neglect of the advisory task and of the need to improve South Vietnam's armed forces, and equally neglect of the crucial pacification program, thereby leaving largely undisturbed the enemy's shadow government, its infrastructure within the villages and hamlets of rural South Vietnam. "Westmoreland's interest always lay in the big-unit war," said his senior intelligence officer, Lieutenant General Phillip B. Davidson. "Pacification bored him." And, in his enthusiasm for taking over the Main Force war, Westmoreland in effect pushed the South Vietnamese out of the way, thus also abdicating his assigned role as the senior advisor to those forces and essentially stunting their development for a crucial four years.

    At the end of 1966, the Pentagon Papers authors later observed, "the mood was one of cautious optimism, buoyed by hopes that 1967 would prove to be the decisive year in Vietnam." In an interview published in Life magazine, Westmoreland went further. "We're going to out-guerrilla the guerrilla and out-ambush the ambush," he asserted. "And we're going to learn better than he ever did because we're smarter, we have greater mobility and firepower, we have more endurance and more to fight for.... And we've got more guts." This was ominous, for Westmoreland had by then been in Vietnam for nearly three years. Indeed, the previous year he had told the President that the war would be over by the summer of 1967.

    In February 1967 General Earle G. Wheeler, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made one of his periodic visits to South Vietnam, afterward reporting to the President that "the adverse military tide has been reversed, and General Westmoreland now has the initiative. The enemy can no longer hope to win the war in South Vietnam," he added. "We can win the war if we apply pressure upon the enemy relentlessly in the North and in the South."


Meet the Author

A third-generation graduate of West Point, Lewis Sorley also holds a doctorate from Johns Hopkins University. He has served in the U.S. Army, on staff at the Pentagon, and later as a senior civilian official in the Central Intelligence Agency. He is the author of Thunderbolt: General Creighton Abrams and the Army of His Times, an excerpt of which won the 1991 Harold Peterson Prize as the year's best scholarly article on American military history, and of Honorable Warrior: General Harold K. Johnson and the Ethics of Command. He lives in the Washington, D.C., area.
Lewis Sorley is a third-generation graduate of the United States Military Academy who also holds a Ph.D. from the Johns Hopkins University. He served in Vietnam, and in the Pentagon in the offices of Secretary of Defense James R. Schlesinger and Army Chief of Staff General William C. Westmoreland. He also taught at West Point and the Army War College. He is the author of five highly-regarded works of military history.

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A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
this was my second book about the vietnam war (after lessons in disaster), and i was impressed and astonished by the facts mentioned in this book. not only that though, but also how the story is told, keeps one reading without interruptions. a really great read. the war itself, as i have perceived it so far -as a war of attrition- is one that could never have been won. BUT there was actually, according to the overwhelming facts presented in the book, a good chance to win, if only the civil and political will to support would have been given. the problem of attrition started at the first three years under westmoreland. after general abrams took office as commander, the wasteful and illusionary seek-and-destroy strategy from westmoreland up to year 68 was over, and a new era started with the clear-and-hold strategy followed thru by abrams. it shows that this was a successful strategy. this should have been the way to go from beginning and should teach the military in afghanistan/iraq some lessons on how to proceed in that war...
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
S_Nicole_F More than 1 year ago
The book is an easy read, more or less. I'll give it that. It's interesting. HOWEVER, it is hardly more than a 388 page example of biased hero worship of General Abrams. Any objective reader will find this book biased to the point of being ridiculous. This a good book to read to see this viewpoint, but please remember to take it with a grain of salt. Abrams was not a god or a saint, no matter how he's painted by Sorley.