Abrams first rose to professional prominence as a lieutenant colonel and commander of a tank battalion that often spearheaded General George Patton's Third Army in the drive across Europe. Abrams led the forces that punched through German lines to relieve the encircled 101st Airborne Division at Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge, earned two Distinguished Service Crosses and many other decorations, and received a battlefield promotion to full colonel.
After World War II, Abrams served as director of tactics at the Armor School, Fort Knox (1946–1948); was a corps chief of staff late in the Korean War (1953–1954); and from 1960 to 1962 commanded the 3rd Armored Division in Germany, a key post during the Cold War. A year later he took command of its parent V Corps. In mid-1964 he was recalled from Europe, promoted to four-star general, and made the army's vice chief of staff. In that assignment (1964–1967) he was deeply involved in the army's troop buildup for the war in Vietnam.
In May 1967 Abrams was himself assigned to Vietnam as deputy commander. In that position he concentrated primarily on improvement of South Vietnamese armed forces. During the 1968 Tet Offensive when the forces involved performed far better than expected, Abrams received much of the credit. He formally assumed command of American forces in Vietnam in July 1968. A consummate tactician who proved to have a feel for this kind of conflict, he moved quickly to change the conduct of the war in fundamental ways. His predecessor's attrition strategy, search and destroy tactics, and emphasis on body counts as the measure of battlefield success were all discarded.
Abrams instead stressed population security, the new measure of merit, as the key to success. He prescribed a "one war" approach in which combat operations, pacification, and upgrading South Vietnamese forces were of equal importance and priority. He cut back on multibattalion sweeps, replacing them with thousands of small unit patrols and ambushes that blocked communist forces' access to the people and interdicted their movement of forces and supplies. Clear-and-hold operations became the standard tactical approach, with expanded and better-armed Vietnamese territorial forces providing the hold. Population security progressed accordingly. Meanwhile, U.S. forces were incrementally withdrawn, their missions taken over by the improving South Vietnamese.
Abrams left Vietnam in June 1972 to become U.S. Army chief of staff. There he set about dealing with the myriad problems of an army that had been through a devastating ordeal. He concentrated on readiness and on the well-being of the soldier, always the touchstones of his professional concern. Stricken with cancer, Abrams died in office in Washington, D.C., on 4 September 1974. He had set a course of reform and rebuilding that General John W. Vessey, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, later recalled in a letter to the publisher Simon and Schuster: "When Americans watched the stunning success of our armed forces in Desert Storm, they were watching the Abrams vision in action. The modern equipment, the effective air support, the use of the reserve components and, most important of all, the advanced training which taught our people how to stay alive on the battlefield were all seeds planted by Abe."
Colby, William, with James McCargar. Lost Victory: A Firsthand Account of America's Sixteen-Year Involvement in Vietnam. Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1989.; Davidson, Phillip B. Vietnam at War: The History, 1946–1975. Novato, CA: Presidio, 1988.; Palmer, General Bruce, Jr. The 25-Year War: America's Military Role in Vietnam. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1984.; Sorley, Lewis. A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1999.; Sorley, Lewis. Thunderbolt: General Creighton Abrams and the Army of His Times. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992.; Sorley, Lewis. Vietnam Chronicles: The Abrams Tapes, 1968–1972. Lubbock: Texas Tech University, 2004.