At the Battle of Ap Bac, in January 1963, a force of 1,500 South Vietnamese, despite superior firepower, was decimated by a few hundred Vietcong. Johnson’s top aides offered two solutions to the American president: get in or get out. Clad in the panoply of American exceptionalism, Johnson opted for the former and turned to Westmoreland to lead the charge at the head of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam — MACV for short.
In the first major engagement under Westmoreland’s leadership, the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley in November 1965, American forces killed 10 enemy soldiers for every one of their own lost. The hard-fought victory persuaded Westmoreland to adopt a strategy of attrition — if American troops killed enough North Vietnamese and Viet Cong, the enemy would have to sue for peace. Westmoreland explained his plan to an old friend, Senator Fritz Hollings of South Carolina. “Westy,” Hollings explained, “the American people don’t care about the 10, they care about the one.”
Westmoreland’s opposite number in North Vietnam, Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, had also punched the right tickets. A former history teacher and a self-taught military strategist, he had led the Viet Minh resistance against the Japanese during World War II and later commanded the Viet Minh troops who defeated the French forces at Dien Bien Phu in 1953. Considered one of the greatest military strategists of the 20th century, Giap had as his goal not a classic military victory, but rather, as he wrote later, “to break the will of the American government” — just as he had done against the French.