Dark Clouds over Junction City

In the war’s biggest operation, Westmoreland won his ‘big unit’ campaign but lost confidence that the war could be won.

U.S. General William Westmoreland and North Vietnamese Senior General Nguyen Chi Thanh had a lot in common in early 1967. Both born in 1914, they were in their professional prime at age 53. Three years earlier, each had come into command of large armies and were now standing boldly at the center stage of the unfolding drama that was the Vietnam War—and each of them was intent on killing or capturing as many of the other’s forces as possible in big-unit, toe-to-toe battle. Thanh and Westmoreland also had stark differences. Westmoreland had worked his way up the chain, commanding ground forces in World War II and the Korean War. He had a reputation as an energetic, can-do, motivational commander with an uncanny knack for remembering faces and names. Thanh was a peasant farmer turned revolutionary, first arrested for anti-French activities in the 1930s and elevated to the Vietnam Communist Party Politburo in 1951. He was the Peoples Army of Vietnam (PAVN) political czar and answered to the party rather than the military, led by North Vietnam’s legendary General Vo Nguyen Giap. Thanh was a potent, contentious critic of Giap, who in 1966 was pushing for a reversion to guerrilla warfare and the abandonment of Thanh’s big-unit war strategy—or what Giap saw as “suicidal” stand-up battle with the Americans. Supported by top party leaders Le Duan and Le Duc Tho, Thanh’s argument prevailed.

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