An old soldier looked back Tuesday on America’s longest and most unpopular war and ahead to an uncertain one.
Gen. William C. Westmoreland, the 76-year-old former commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam, said he sees the Persian Gulf War lasting a couple of months at the minimum, a year at the maximum.
In a telephone interview from his retirement home in Charleston, S.C., Westmoreland said U.S.-led forces may have to launch a ground offensive against fortified Iraqi forces in Kuwait, as well as Iraq itself.
“We’ll take casualties, there’s no question,” he said. Whether a ground assault will be needed depends on whether Iraqi soldiers can withstand bombing by the B-52, he said.
The Vietnam War lasted more than 10 years, and American forces suffered nearly 60,000 dead.
Anti-war sentiment, massive demonstrations and eroding public support eventually brought U.S. forces home in 1973.
Today’s demonstrators, Westmoreland said, are a very small segment of society.
“I don’t think they have any effect on the troops. I think the best thing is to ignore them,” he said.
Looking back 25 years ago when he commanded 550,000 troops in Vietnam, Westmoreland said, “It was a limited war with limited objectives fought with limited means. That added up to limited public support.”
He said the Johnson Administration did not want to broaden the war for fear of drawing China and the Soviet Union into it. Both were supporting the North Vietnamese with military equipment and advisers.
China entered the Korean War when American forces intervened there a decade earlier.
“They wanted to confine it to the battlefield of Vietnam,” Westmoreland said.
He said U.S. infantry forces were not allowed to cross into neighboring Cambodia and Laos until the early 1970s to attack North Vietnamese bases and supply lines.
The bombing campaign against Vietnam, often restricted geographically and often halted for political reasons, was controlled by Washington and not by him, Westmoreland said.
“The targets were approved in Washington,” he said. “So it was a restrained war.”
Iraq, he said, does not have China or the Soviet Union as an ally.
“Saddam Hussein is on his own. Look at the vote of the United Nations (approving use of force against Iraq). There was no vote of the United Nations during the Vietnam War.”
Westmoreland said the stakes and strategic value of the Persian Gulf are higher than Vietnam.
“The American people couldn’t quite see the relevance of Vietnam to their future or to their security,” he said.
“We’ve got oil involved over there (in the Mideast) now. Saddam Hussein has the ambition to control oil points.”
Westmoreland said American forces and weapons in the Middle East today are the best in the history of the country.
He contrasted the Vietnam-era draftees to today’s all-volunteer Army, equipped with sophisticated weapons such as the Patriot missile, which he called a “technological marvel.”