Bruce Palmer Jr.

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And so it is in our own case- the history of the U.S. Army is inseparable from the history of the United States. We who have been or are privileged now to serve in the American Army should keep that fact in mind.

Bruce Palmer, Jr. (April 13, 1913 – October 10, 2000) was a noted United States Army General and acting Chief of Staff of the United States Army from July to October 1972. His father Bruce Palmer, Sr. was an Army brigadier general, and his paternal grandfather George H. Palmer received the Medal of Honor during the Civil War.



The 25-Year War: America's Military Role in Vietnam (1984)

  • To my wife, Kay Sibert, and our children, Robin Helen, Maurene Elizabeth, and Bruce III, who knew full well the life of a military family- And to the men and women who served in Indochina on the side of the Free World.
    • Dedication
  • Exactly twenty-five years from 1 May 1950- the day President Truman authorized the first U.S. military assistance to Indochina- Saigon and the South Vietnamese government fell to the communist regime of North Vietnam, on 30 April 1975. Thus ended the longest conflict in American history. After every prolonged conflict in its experience, the United States has plunged into a period of assessment, trying to sift out the meaning of the memorable events of the recent past while searching for the key to a conflict-free future. This happened in the 1870s after our Civil War, in the 1920s after World War I, and for a relatively brief period in the late 1940s after World War II. But with the advent of the Cold War in 1947, followed by the Korean War in 1950- our first experience with limited war- we lived through over a quarter of a century during which the United States was continuously involved in some sort of emergency, contingency, or actual hostilities somewhere in the world. And so, after our agonizing experience in Vietnam, the first clear failure in our history, it is not surprising to find the United States of the 1970s and 1980s brooding over its frustrations and reevaluating its role in the world.
    • p. vii
  • Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia (the whole peninsula of Indochina) present a puzzling picture, enigmatic to most foreigners and especially so to Americans. The very name Vietnam evokes deep emotions and bitter memories in our countrymen. But the tendency to blame Vietnam for our domestic ills has no foundation in fact. The problems of urban decay, racial disharmony, drug abuse, and all the rest were bound to plague us, whether or not we became involved in Vietnam. Indeed, one can argue that in the 1950s, well before we became heavily involved in Vietnam, a sense of national direction and purpose appeared to be lacking in the United States. This book looks at the Vietnam War from the perspective of a senior military professional who held important positions of responsibility during the conflict. Among other things, I will seek to bring out the lessons we have learned or should have learned from the war, and their implications for the future. The severe impact of the war on our armed forces and its almost disastrous effect on the U.S. Army will receive special treatment.
    • p. vii-viii
  • In the late 1950s, when Taylor was the Army chief under the Eisenhower administration, I served in his office as the deputy secretary of the General Staff and made several official trips overseas with him. (The secretary of the General Staff at the time, then Major General William Westmoreland, coordinated the activities of the Army staff and in effect was chief of staff to the Army Chief.) General Taylor was an impressive figure, known as an intellectual, a soldier statesman, and a talented linguist. But it was an unhappy period for Taylor, who did not see eye-to-eye with the commander-in-chief or the other military chiefs as to the proper role of the Army. After he left the Army, Taylor laid out his deep misgivings about the national military establishment in a highly critical book, The Uncertain Trumpet, which caught the attention of many prominent people, including John F. Kennedy. Particularly intense and somewhat aloof during this period, Taylor appeared to those who did not know him as cold, humorless, and unbending. But he had another side- he could be friendly, a genial host, and a witty conversationalist with a well developed sense of humor. For many people, however, these more endearing qualities were not revealed until after he had retired from public life at the end of Johnson's presidency.
    • p. 20
  • Eventually the decision was reached to accept the armed chopper as an essential part of the air mobility concept but not to allow the Army to use the Mohawk as an attack aircraft, confining it to a reconnaissance role. Both were wise decisions. But prior to these decisions there were some hot and emotional sessions of the JCS. One concerned the armed Huey, which as then being used successfully in Vietnam to support ARVN operations, but which was considered by the Air Force as illegal poaching on their roles and missions. This was in the midsummer of 1964. General LeMay suddenly took his cigar out of his mouth and, gesticulating wildly, challenged General Johnson to an aerial duel. He screamed, "Johnson, you fly one of those damned Huey's and I'll fly an F-105, and we'll see who survives. I'll shoot you down and scatter your peashooter all over the goddamn ground." I was eager to defend my chief, both verbally and physically (LeMay would have made two Johnsons in body weight, if not in mental poundage) but Johnson motioned to me to keep quiet and responded quietly: "I'm not a flier, but I will be happy to get qualified and take you on- we can agree on a time and place later. But let's not waste the valuable time of our colleagues on such a trivial matter."
    • p. 27
  • Looking back at this period (1965-1967), I have often wondered why General Taylor was seemingly unable to convince President Johnson that the U.S. strategy was a losing one. Taylor had been successively President Kennedy's special adviser, chairman of the JCS, U.S. ambassador to Saigon, and President Johnson's special consultant. (Taylor calls this latter position a "lame duck" consultant, partially answering my question.) Clearly Taylor not only knew the problems and pitfalls but also was in a position to wield great influence. The nagging question, though, remains- why was he not more successful in bringing about a sounder strategic approach to the war?
    • p. 45
  • I have often reflected that General Abrams, who had worked so hard to make the South Vietnamese armed forces capable of defending their country, at least had been spared the agony of seeing the death of the Republic of Vietnam. Westmoreland, on the other hand, was not spared that trauma, but seems over the years since the war to have become a national scapegoat, blamed for everything that went wrong in Vietnam, large or small, regardless of whether he had even a remote connection with the matter. It is a singularly fair and unsupported judgement. Many scores of senior American officials, civilian and military, including the author, contributed to our Vietnam mistakes, most of which have been so judged in hindsight. The real "blame", of course, must be laid squarely on the Hanoi regime and the North Vietnamese people, who demonstrated to the world that they had the will to prevail. Although it is a small comfort to Westmoreland, history is replete with the examples of one native son's being singled out, rightly or wrongly, as the person responsible for a national disaster.
    • p. 133-134
  • Both Abrams and Westmoreland would have been judged as authentic military "heroes" at a different time in history. Both men were outstanding leaders in their own right and in their own way. They offered sharply contrasting examples of military leadership, something akin to the distinct differences between Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant of our Civil War period. They entered the United States Military Academy at the same time in 1932- Westmoreland from a distinguished South Carolina family, and Abrams from a simpler family background in Massachusetts- and graduated together with the Class of 1936. Whereas Westmoreland became the First Captain (the senior cadet in the corps) during their senior year, Abrams was a somewhat nondescript cadet whose major claim to fame was as a loud, boisterous guard on the second-string varsity football squad. Both rose to high rank through outstanding performance in combat command jobs in World War II and the Korean War, as well as through equally commendable work in various staff positions. But as leaders they were vastly different. Abrams was the bold, flamboyant charger who wanted to cut to the heart of the matter quickly and decisively, while Westmoreland was the more shrewdly calculating, prudent commander who chose the more conservative course. Faultlessly attired, Westmoreland constantly worried about his public image and assiduously courted the press. Abrams, on the other hand, usually looked rumpled, as though he might have slept in his uniform, and was indifferent about his appearance, acting as though he could care less about the press. The sharply differing results were startling; Abrams rarely receiving a bad press report, Westmoreland struggling to get a favorable one.
    • p. 134
  • Even when heavy enemy battle losses are substantiated, one must be careful not to judge their psychological effect on the bassis of occidental values. Indeed, American military professionals who fought in the Pacific during World War II or in Korea became acutely aware of differing oriental values with respect to human life, and knew the pitfalls of putting too much store in the impact of heavy casualties on the morale of a determined foe or on the will of a ruthless totalitarian government.
    • p. 165
  • Some years ago when I visited the British Army Museum in London, I was impressed by the way in which the history of the British Army was presented. Basically the display briefly and succinctly gave for each war involving the British Army the immediate and more remote causes of the war, British casualties, and the outcome, politically, territorially, economically, and the like. As I went through the display covering centuries of English history in a few minutes, I was struck by what perhaps should have been obvious from the outset. The history of the British Army also chronicles the history of Great Britain. And so it is in our own case- the history of the U.S. Army is inseparable from the history of the United States. We who have been or are privileged now to serve in the American Army should keep that fact in mind.
    • p. 209
  • Although each of our armed services is unique and different, the U.S. Army holds a special position of significance and trust. Its ranks come from the people, the country's roots, and it is closest to the people. In foreign confrontations the United States is not committed until its land forces- its Army- is committed. And in the event of hostilities, the Army historically has borne the brunt of war, the human cost, taking the great bulk of the casualties. The Army as an institution knows this and has been traditionally reluctant to go to war, its leaders seeking to insure that war is truly necessary and that our civilian leaders exploit all other avenues before taking that final step.
    • p. 209
  • The Vietnam War is behind us but not entirely forgotten. Like our Civil War, Vietnam holds a fascination for many Americans, and I suspect that this will grow rather than diminish as research continues and new works are published about the war. For the older military professionals who served during the Vietnam War and for the still older career military men who were perplexed by it, my advice is to look at Vietnam in a broader historical perspective. For the young military professional who did not serve in Vietnam, my advice is to learn all you can about the war and try to understand it. Finally for those military men now serving at the top military positions, as well as those who will rise to those positions later, my advice is to do all you can to improve the civilian-military interface in the highest councils of our government. This is the best way I know to better the chances that our civilian leaders truly understand the risks, costs, and probable outcomes of military actions before they take the nation to war. The United States cannot afford to put itself again at such enormous strategic disadvantage as we found ourselves in in Vietnam. How deep Vietnam has stamped its imprint on American history has yet to be determined. In any event, I am optimistic enough to believe that we Americans can and will learn and profit from our experience.
    • Closing words, p. 209-210

Quotes about Palmer

  • Bruce Palmer, Jr., is a retired four-star general. In Vietnam he commanded Field Force II and later was deputy to General William Westmoreland. From 1968 to 1973 he was Vice Chief of Staff, for a time Acting Chief of Staff, U.S. Army. Since his retirement in 1974, he has continued to serve as a military consultant to the government.
    • About the Author, from the dust jacket of The 25-Year War: America's Military Role in Vietnam (1984) by Bruce Palmer, Jr.
  • Some of his ancestors were surely Irish, for he possesses the love of horse and hunting, the ready spirit, highly developed sense of humor, and deep-rooted romanticism that are the heritage of every son of Erin. Polo is his forte and the Cavalry his metier. No man in the class knows more about the tactics of his chosen branch. In polo, what Bruce lacked in size he made up in determination, and many a heavier and better-mounted opponent will attest to Butch's skill in riding off. The gold on his collar more than compensated for its absence on his sleeve. He wore stars four years with an ease that filled his fellow stellarites with envy. His friends are legion.
    • Description of Palmer in The Howitzer (1936), yearbook of the United States Military Academy, p. 182
  • Palmer essentially confirms the futility of the American commitment in Vietnam. He stresses, for example, that air power failed either to stop the North Vietnamese from moving south or to destroy the Vietcong units. He points out as well that, by Americanizing the war, the United States disconcerted and discouraged its South Vietnamese allies.
    • Stanley Karnow in the Washington Post, as quoted on the dust jacket of The 25-Year War: America's Military Role in Vietnam (1984) by Bruce Palmer, Jr.
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