U.S. Army general Creighton W. Abrams Jr. (1914–1974) was deputy commander of the U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), during 1967–1968 and its commander during 1968–1972. As chief of staff of the army from 1972 to 1974, Abrams worked to rebuild the army and laid the foundation for its later success.
Abrams, Creighton Williams, Jr.
Birth Date: September 15, 1914
Death Date: September 4, 1974
U.S. Army general; commander, U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), during 1968–1972; and celebrated combat leader. Born on September 15, 1914, in Springfield, Massachusetts, Creighton Williams Abrams Jr. grew up in a family of modest means in the semirural setting of nearby Agawam. Graduating from the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, in 1936, Abrams was posted to the famous 7th Cavalry Regiment at Fort Bliss, Texas. When World War II loomed he volunteered for armored service, finding there a mode of warfare entirely congenial to his own hard-driving and imaginative style of leadership.
Abrams rose to professional prominence as commander of a tank battalion that often spearheaded General George Patton’s Third Army during World War II. 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. He inspired General Patton to say that “I’m supposed to be the best tank commander in the Army, but I have one peer—Abe Abrams. He’s the world’s champion.”
After World War II Abrams served as director of tactics at the Armor School, Fort Knox (1946–1948); graduated from the Command and General Staff College (1949); and was a corps chief of staff at the end of the Korean War (1953–1954). He graduated from the Army War College in 1953 and then was promoted to brigadier general in 1956 and major general in 1960. Abrams held a variety of staff assignments during this period, and from 1960 to 1962 he commanded the 3rd Armored Division. In 1963 he was promoted to lieutenant general and was made commander of V Corps in Germany.
When American involvement in Vietnam intensified, in mid-1964 Abrams was recalled from Germany, promoted to full (four-star) general from far down the list of lieutenant generals, and made the army’s vice chief of staff. In that assignment during 1964–1967 he was deeply involved in the army’s troop buildup, a task made infinitely more difficult by President Lyndon Johnson’s refusal to call up reserve forces. In tandem with U.S. Army chief of staff General Harold K. Johnson, with whom he shared a set of professional values rooted in integrity and concern for the soldier, Abrams made an effective steward of the army’s affairs.
In May 1967 Abrams was assigned to Vietnam as deputy commander of MACV. In that position he devoted himself primarily to the improvement of South Vietnamese armed forces, crisscrossing the country to see first-hand what units and commanders were doing and what they needed in the way of training, support, and guidance. When during the 1968 Tet Offensive the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN, South Vietnamese Army) forces gave a far better account of themselves than was expected, Abrams rightly received much of the credit.
Soon after the beginning of the Tet Offensive, Abrams was sent north to Phu Bai to take command of fighting in I Corps. Operating out of a newly established headquarters designated MACV Forward, Abrams concentrated on the battle to retake Hue, forming in the process a close relationship with ARVN general Ngo Quang Truong, commander of the ARVN 1st Division. Abrams coordinated the efforts of a growing assortment of U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps elements and ARVN forces while working to improve the logistical system.
After a month of hard fighting, Truong’s forces cleared Hue and raised the Republic of Vietnam (RVN, South Vietnam) flag over the Citadel. Truong praised Abrams for knowing exactly what his forces were doing and supplying them with what was necessary if they aggressively accomplished their mission. Soon it was announced that Abrams would assume the top job in Vietnam.
General Abrams formally assumed command of MACV on July 3, 1968, having been in de facto command since shortly after the Tet Offensive. As commander of MACV, Abrams changed the conduct of the war in fundamental ways. His predecessor’s attrition strategy, search-and-destroy tactics, and reliance on body count as the measure of merit were discarded. “Body count,” Abrams said, “is really a long way from what’s involved in this war. Yeah, you have to do that, I know that, but the mistake is to think that that’s the central issue.”
Instead Abrams stressed population security as the key to success. He directed a one-war approach, pulling together combat operations, pacification, and upgrading South Vietnamese forces into a coherent whole. “In the whole picture of the war,” he observed, “battles really don’t mean much.” Under Abrams, combat operations had as their ultimate objective providing security for the population so that pacification, the most important thing, could progress. “That’s where the battle ultimately is won,” he said.
Abrams was a consummate tactician who proved to have a feel for this kind of war. He urged his commanders to reduce drastically so-called H&I (harassment and interdiction) fires, unobserved artillery fire that he thought did little damage to the enemy and a good deal of damage to innocent villagers. He also cut back on the multibattalion sweeps that gave Communist forces the choice of terrain, time, and duration of engagement. He replaced these with multiple small-unit patrols and ambushes that blocked the enemy’s access to the people, interdicting their movement of forces and supplies.
Abrams’s analysis of the enemy system was key to this approach. He had observed that to function effectively the enemy needed to prepare the battlefield extensively, pushing forward a logistics nose instead of being sustained by a logistics tail, as in common military practice. This meant that many enemy attacks could be preempted if their supply caches could be discovered and captured or destroyed. Abrams also discerned that Communist main forces depended heavily on guerrillas and the Viet Cong (VC) infrastructure in the hamlets and villages, not the other way around, and that digging out that infrastructure could deprive the main forces of the guides, bearers, intelligence, locally procured food and supplies, and other elements that they needed to function effectively. These insights were key to revising the tactics of the war.
By April 1970 Abrams’s staff had developed a briefing titled “The Changing Nature of the War.” Change had been under way since Tet 1968, said the study: “Although shifts in the level of violence, type of military operations, and size and location of forces involved are characteristics of this change, the allied realization that the war was basically a political contest has, thus far, been decisive.” The significant aspect was what Abrams had done about acting on that realization. “For the first time in the war,” said the analysis, “the enemy’s traditional bases of power are being directly challenged—his political organization and his control of the population.” That, it appeared, was where the outcome of the war would be decided, because “both sides are finally fighting the same war.”
Abrams’s force of personality and strength of character were, during his years in command, at the heart of the American effort in Vietnam. Over the course of the years his army was progressively taken away from him, withdrawn chunk by chunk until he was in a symbolic sense almost the last man left. Still, Abrams did what he could to inspire, encourage, and support the remaining forces, American and Vietnamese alike.
A diplomat, observing the skill with which Abrams orchestrated the complex endeavor, once remarked that he “deserved a better war.” That wasn’t the way Abrams looked at it, recalled his eldest son: “He thought the Vietnamese were worth it.”
Abrams left Vietnam in June 1972 to become army chief of staff. In that position 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 on September 4, 1974. However, he had set a course of reform and rebuilding that General John W. Vessey, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), later recalled: “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.”
References Buckley, Kevin. “General Abrams Deserves a Better War.” New York Times Magazine, October 5, 1969. Colby, William, with James McCargar. Lost Victory: A Firsthand Account of America’s Sixteen-Year Involvement in Vietnam. Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1989. Davidson, Phillip A. 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. 2nd ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008.