Although Westmoreland would later deny that search and destroy was even a specific tactic, it was certainly the dominant approach followed by American fighting units of all sizes in Vietnam. Search and destroy relied on the assumption that American firepower and technology were so superior and could cause such severe casualties that neither the Viet Cong (VC) nor the People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) would be able to withstand the punishment the United States could visit upon them. Search and destroy was to be an aggressive military tool. Ground forces, transported by Army aviation helicopter units and supported by artillery, would locate enemy forces and destroy both them and occasionally their base areas. It emphasized attacking the Communist forces rather than acquiring territory. Troopers struck into areas of supposed Communist strength to "find, fix, and finish" their enemy. Mission accomplished, they withdrew to their home base until ordered out on the next such operation. Westmoreland believed that the Communists, unable to stand against such forays, would seek peace.
Not everyone agreed with this approach. Air Force Chief of Staff General John P. McConnell and Marine Corps Commandant General David M. Greene opposed it. Army General James Gavin called for U.S. military aid to Vietnam to be restricted to sending forces to certain enclaves, providing those locations with protection, and freeing troops of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) to carry the brunt of the fight. General Edward Lansdale argued that the main American commitment should be directed toward countrywide pacification and counterinsurgency rather than employing combat maneuver battalions.
Westmoreland wanted no static defensive posture, was unwilling to confine his command to a defensive role, and repudiated the enclave strategy. An early indication of his desire to expand in-country operations came in the summer of 1965 when he ordered the 173rd Airborne deployed to the Central Highlands; it had only arrived in Vietnam on May 7. On June 26, the Pentagon gave Westmoreland authority to assign U.S. troops to field action. Two days later (June 28), 3,000 soldiers of the 173rd moved into War Zone D, 20 miles northwest of Saigon. Perhaps Westmoreland felt he had no choice. Previous military preparation had equipped and prepared the Army only to fight in Europe: to contain a Soviet strike through the Hof Corridor or Fulda Gap in Germany on its way to the Rhine. Suddenly faced with Vietnam, planners sent military forces intact to Southeast Asia. Surely they could easily handle a fight with irregular guerrilla forces.
Westmoreland has been soundly criticized for adopting this tactic of attrition. It grew from his erroneous assumption that American soldiers and firepower could inflict devastating losses on Communist forces in Vietnam while keeping U.S. casualties to an acceptable level. Westmoreland's hopes were doomed by wartime reality. The level of attrition he was able to bring to bear on the Communists was neutralized by the fact that over 200,000 North Vietnamese males, replacements for PAVN losses in battle, reached draft age every year. Westmoreland's army never came close to inflicting that many casualties in any 12-month period. A bigger problem with Westmoreland's tactics was the fact that the Communists, rather than U.S. forces, generally initiated hostilities—they chose locations for battle that were favorable to them and often ended combat when they saw fit, leaving the site of an attack along safe avenues of retreat.
Dave Richard Palmer roundly criticized Westmoreland's war of attrition as an indication of his failure to conceive of an alternative, as irrefutable proof of the absence of any strategy, and as an approach demonstrating that the U.S. Army was strategically bankrupt in Vietnam. Others also criticized the strategy, but Westmoreland stubbornly relied on search and destroy throughout his tenure as commander of U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV). Following the 1968 Tet Offensive, however, MACV public affairs officers did not often use the term search and destroy, replacing it with the phrase "reconnaissance in force." An observer would have been hard-pressed, however, to note any actual change in American approaches to locating Communist forces. Cecil B. Currey
Palmer, Dave Richard. Readings in Current Military History. West Point, NY: Department of Military Art and Engineering, U.S. Military Academy, 1969.; Shaplen, Robert. The Road from War: Vietnam, 1965–1970. New York: Harper & Row, 1970.
Cecil B. Currey