"The Year of Decision" Winds Down

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 not only U.S. combat operations but also the huge logistical 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. 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. 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 would be to negotiate an end to the fighting, execute a face-saving withdrawal, and somehow leave behind a non-communist South Vietnam. 

General 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 outspoken, no-nonsense qualities of his one-time boss. Although he would labor under the same precepts and constraints that had frustrated Westmoreland, Abrams characterized his mission differently. 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, but because that would undoubtedly beg the question of why it was held in the first place, the move had to be made with as little fanfare as possible. In explanation, Abrams 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.

Communist forces had unquestionably suffered heavy losses in the Tet offensive and the “mini-Tet” which followed, with little to show for the sacrifice. No general uprising had occurred, and in fact the South Vietnamese were gaining strength. Enemy action slackened noticeably as NVA main force units retreated into their Laotian and Cambodian sanctuaries to rest and refit. The badly mauled VC shied away from close combat, instead vowing to blast Saigon with “100 rockets a day for 100 days.” Reality was starkly different. For the week ending 13 July, MACV announced the lowest US KIA count [118] since October, 1967. The 13th marked a month in Saigon with zero rocket attacks.