Small Wars Journal

Prine on Abrams and Primary Sources

Fri, 07/01/2011 - 7:06pm
Carl Prine at "Prine's Line of Departure" has a very important post on the history of the Vietnam War, and specifically on the generalship of General Creighton Abrams. What prompted Carl's post was a newly released set of volumes by Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) that contain a series of discussions between President Nixon and Henry Kissinger during the Easter Offensive in Spring of 1972 regarding the performance of the MAC-V commander, Creighton Abrams. Pay attention to the quote that Carl cites where Nixon and Kissinger are seriously considering relieving Abrams. Their frustration with Abrams had to do with how Abrams conceived of using firepower delivered by B52s. Abrams wanted to concentrate most if not all of the B-52s to thwart the NVA offensive along the Ho Chi Minh Trail and in South Vietnam, whereas Nixon and Kissinger saw an opportunity to use the B52s and massive amounts of firepower to pummel Hanoi and other key strategic points in North Vietnam in order to force a better political compromise at the negotiations table.

Carl's post and his use of the primary documents also highlights another little understood aspect of General Abrams in that he appears to have had a very serious drinking problem that rose to the level of notice by the Commander in Chief, President Nixon. This is not to spread dirty rumors about a famed American General, but to explore historically a significant factor of the man that very well could have affected his generalship. It at least warrants asking the question. Unfortunately this personal aspect of Abrams along with the deep frustration that his Commander in Chief had over his performance has been buried by the hagiography surrounding the Abrams by the works of writer Lewis Sorley and the myth of a better war in Vietnam.


gian p gentile (not verified)

Sat, 07/02/2011 - 9:44am


Yes I think you are exactly right. And if you found Sorley "romantic" I too found it that way, but also with the current bevy of writings on General Petraeus (Ricks, Robinson, Kagan, et al)which are "romatic" in the extreme.

Agree with your point on the Cohen/Gooch book. I would only add that in wars of counterinsurgency, which are really area security missions, higher ranking generals dont matter nearly as much as the literature makes them out to matter. I mean it is not like one of these Coin generals turns his army right or left, and if it is the wrong direction, there is immediate and observable effects from such decsions.


I too found Lewis Sorley's biography a bit too "romantic."

But then, isn't the way we record history overly oriented on the generals and admirals? Haven't we created a "romance of leadership" that helps inculcate rather polemic (heroic<-->failure) stories that feed a mythology?

This is why I really enjoyed Eliot A. Cohen & John Gooch "Military Misfortunes" in that they concentrated their analyses more on institutional / organizational systematic issues. This should be a must reading in staff/war college education.

p.s. Google-scholar the seminal article by JR Meindl, SB Ehrlich, Administrative Science Quarterly, 1985, "The Romance of Leadership. Pretty compelling argument that we have a cultural affinity to attribute failures and successes to the idea of leadership.

gian p gentile (not verified)

Sat, 07/02/2011 - 9:08am

Look the fact that the President of the United States and his National Security Advisor seriously considered relieving Abrams from command during the Easter Offensive (and for building frustration with him from the year prior) and that both saw a significant problem with drinking with the man is an important set of historical points that need to be revealed and considered.

Was Lee's health at the Battle of Gettysburg a matter of historical importance? You bet it was especially since it kept him grounded and stationary for almost all of day 2 of the battle. Or what about Napoleon's health at Borodino which because he was sick caused him to stay in his tent all day. In each of these two cases the health of these two generals kept them from performing as they had in previous battles.

Building on Zens post, everybody has foibles, flaws, quirks, and elements of contemptibility within us; that is human nature. Most of it only warrants a sentence or two or in a footnote in histories. Although I agree wit Carl's and Publius's point with regard to Nixon in that Jeffrey Kimball's work on him shows the possibility of personality disorders. John Paul Vann for example had a bevy of Vietnamese mistresses during his time in Nam and a dysfunctional family life back in the US, but that didnt necessarily affect his performance. With regard to Abrams, and even accepting Ken's personal impression of the man which is important but certainly must be seen as relative to the many other dots of evidence, there is enough to suggest that Abram's alcohol problem may have affected his ability to command. There is evidence, at least at this point mostly anecdotal, that Abrams did not get out nearly as much as Westmoreland did and was pretty much holed up in his hooch by early afternoon. The President and National Security advisor thought so, and not just in the heat of the moment of the Easter Offensive but years later both felt it important to mention these things in their memoirs.

The turning of Abrams after his death and the fall of Saigon into the savior general of Vietnam is really not about the Vietnam War per say at all, but of the American Army after Vietnam, and the refighting of the war by certain veterans who fought it, but in the better war telling, this time winning it. It to be sure is a moving yarn of failure, then reinvention, then victory, but it does not come close to representing any reasonable account of historical truth.

If we would have had batteries of balanced histories and biographies on Abrams then these sorts of things would have come out, been discussed and interpreted and so on. But the hagiographies by Sorley and a few others (Nagl partially in his book and Krepinevich too) never bring these facts out, so in a sense there is a hole, and a big one, in the literature on Abrams.

There is no such thing as "objectivity" in the writing of history; all historians bring their own subjectivity to their research and analysis. But what I have seen over the years as a practicing historian is that when folks dont like a certain historians interpretation or use of sources he is labeled a "revisionist" or worse accused of having an "agenda." But the fact of the matter is that all good history is revisionist by nature, if it wasnt history would stay the same and never change, no new sources would be considered and new interpretations offered. I am sorry that Carls use of primary sources, and his interpretations of them, and mine to boot, go against the way some remember personally the war, but good history moves forward and is not stuck in a block of concrete.

These historical facts about Abrams may be disagreeable to certain memories of the war, may appear as a smear campaign against a great general, may seem to carry an "agenda" with them, but they are important and need to be considered as we improve our understanding of the historical record on Abrams and the final years of the Vietnam War.



Sat, 07/02/2011 - 4:00am

Publius needs to read more primary historical sources.

FDR was every bit as "contemptible" in regard to his private conversations as was Nixon, if not moreso. Unlike Nixon, FDR so loved salacious gossip that he had J. Edgar Hoover brief him personally on the foibles of his underlings, including Ike's alleged dalliance with Kay Summersby, which Roosevelt gleefully passed on over cocktails to others. FDR spied on Eleanor Roosevelt's supposed relationships with men and women in her circle. Then there's the antics of Lyndon Johnson and JFK, not all of which have come to light yet, but reading the Caro trilogy on Johnson is more than enough to disabuse anybody of the idea that Richard Nixon was unique in his unpleasant character flaws.

Ken White (not verified)

Sat, 07/02/2011 - 12:53am

Sigh. Once more into the breach. The 11:45 PM Anon is moi.

Dumb on my part, forgot to sign in -- but it gives me a chance to add that <b>Publius</b> is correct as usual. I've lived under 13 Presidents in my life time. Johnson beat Nixon out for last place and pathetic worst -- but just barely..

Anonymous (not verified)

Sat, 07/02/2011 - 12:45am

<b>Carl Prine:</b><blockquote>"...I just find it odd that with so many biographies out about him no one has discussed the fact that the man running MACV might have had a drinking problem."</blockquote>That's easy and really not at all odd. First, in the Army before John Wickham was Chief of Staff and destroyed the Club system while purging alcohol and creating an Army that has a bad tendency to turn folks into 'holier than thou' types (competitive systems do that...), most serving persons, officer and enlisted drank a fair amount. Thus Abrams drinking was, at that time, totally unremarkable in the true sense of the word..

Having met him and talked to him several times Including at about the time he took over as ComUSMacCV in Viet Nam and when he was the Chief of Staff, I don't think he had a drinking problem though he obviously drank -- the capillaries always give us away... ;)

Secondly, only in the past ten to fifteen years has the penchant for publicly denigrating satire and history become popular and common. The trend that started in the mid 60s coffee shops and alternative press has become quite prevalent and noticeable in mainstream commentary so as historians research today, many look for the numerous small flaws we all have and use them to play the non sequitur and strawman ploy in the process of advancing agendas. Not saying you did that, just that it is common today where it wasn't 30 plus years ago. It's also not always wrong but it is different...


Sat, 07/02/2011 - 12:23am

It's hard to tell because two of the three sources in the room are dead, Publius.

But it seems that the CJCS also seemed to share that opinion, at least tacitly. He sure didn't dispute the issue.

I have no opinion one way or the other about Abrams. I just find it odd that with so many biographies out about him no one has discussed the fact that the man running MACV might have had a drinking problem.

I think that's a matter for real historians to suss out. And, yes, another thing that pops out reading the transcripts is what a contemptible man Dick Nixon was.

There were moments when I wondered how anyone could have volunteered to work for him. If you go to the link on my website to the documents, you will see that shortly before ordering Abrams to go "on the wagon" for the duration of the offensive he also ordered the firing of an underling who failed to get him his morning briefing from Saigon on time.

He also ensured that this was put into a permanent file, to haunt the person he didn't even know. Forever.

Publius (not verified)

Fri, 07/01/2011 - 11:27pm

Richard Nixon as a primary source? Been a long time since I've seen anyone cite Mr. Nixon as a source who could be trusted in any way. Most of us who actually lived through those times kind of wish we'd never heard the name, "Nixon." The man's unfortunate legacy still haunts us.

How did Nixon knew about Abrams's drinking habits? Inasmuch as we can be fairly certain Nixon and Abrams never actually sat down and got shitfaced together (Nixon liked his booze, too), what Mr. Nixon knew about Abe's personal habits could only have come from other sources. Let's see...trusted sources for Richard Nixon. Henry Kissinger, Alexander Haig, Bob Haldeman, John Ehrlichman. Great sources. Only two of 'em are convicted felons. Kissinger should have been jailed years ago and Haig, well, let's just say, he was not the most respected general officer ever. You can trust all of those guys. Sure.

ISTM that Carl Prine and Gian Gentile went into reading these transcripts with an agenda, namely that of proving a point that Abrams wasn't the hot shit guy of Army legend, that he was just another guy like Westmoreland. That's fine. That's the historian's game. But, c'mon guys, while you were reading these transcripts, didn't you pick up on the fact that the president of the U.S. was a paranoid megalomaniac personality? He was functionally insane by the time he left office. We don't know exactly when he went into la-la land, but we know Vietnam pushed him there. It's very hard to trust anything Nixon might have done or said in the last couple of years.

Hey, folks, believing Richard Nixon is a fool's game. He was a shady character most of his life--he got the name, "Tricky Dick" for a reason--but he actually became a criminal as president.

Yes, Abrams was a drinker. Smoker, too, as we all know. But he wasn't a criminal. And why didn't Nixon relieve him? What did Nixon make him Chief of Staff? I'll tell you why. Because Nixon was a simpering wreck who'd talk bravely around his inner circle, but who would later prove not to have the sand to actually confront someone like Abrams.

Nixon was a contemptible man.

Mark Pyruz

Fri, 07/01/2011 - 11:26pm

A look into Abrahm's medical records would be of assistance to a historian conducting research.

Cancer has debilitating effects on the body and mind. This can be exacerbated by alcoholism.

At the very least, Abrahm's quality of life during his last two years must have seen a noticeable reduction.

Ken White (not verified)

Fri, 07/01/2011 - 9:33pm

Of course not, who'd spread dirty rumors. Recall Lincolns' quote re: Grant's drinking...

When Abrams was CofSA, the NCOs escorting squads and platoons of their kids around Fort Myer for 'trick or treat,' always enjoyed hitting Quarter 1 -- he gave the escorts a shot of bourbon. No one complained, everyone drank it. Different world then on the drinking. People smoked cigarettes then also. ;)

The fact that Abrams wanted to hurt the logistic effort of his opponent in his AO with a potent weapon should be no surprise. The fact that he and everyone else in Viet Nam knew that even if the North was severely bombed little would change surely affected his desire to keep that bombing tactically focused. Ground guys tend to do that. Westmoreland and Abrams both IMO knew they were in a no-win situation and tried to keep as many people alive and comfortable as they could. Not to say they just went through the motions; they both did the best they could with what they had.

In fact, most of those 'revelations' shouldn't surprise anyone. Nor do they change the fact that the US government failed in Viet Nam. The failures ranged from one very poor President -- that would be Lyndon -- and two mediocre Presidents along with a National Security Adivsor slash SecState from whom I wouldn't buy a used car -- to the Army and the Euro-centric Harkins, Westmoreland -- and yes, Abrams -- and a few others...

Nor should hagiographies or other writings change anyone's attitude toward COIN which is a very questionable academic theory proven not to work for a reasonable cost -- in Viet Nam or anywhere else its been tried...