January 13, 2008, marks the one-hundredth birthday of Gen. Earle Gilmore Wheeler, Army Chief of Staff from 1962 to 1964, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1964 to 1970. Distinguished service brought him to these positions of preeminent responsibility and positioned him to be a key strategic player-and the Washington, D.C., face of the U.S. military-throughout most of the Vietnam War. It seems a good time to reflect upon his career and his legacy.
Gen. Wheeler graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in 1932 and was commissioned as an Infantry officer. After four years at Fort Benning, Ga., he served with the 15th Infantry Regiment in Tientsin, China, and then with the same regiment in Fort Lewis, Wash. He taught at the U.S. Military Academy during 1940-41. During the early years of World War II, demonstrated staff excellence tied him into framing assignments in the United States. He deployed as chief of staff of the 63rd Infantry Division in November 1944. The 63rd Infantry Division landed in Marseilles, moved to Willerwald, crossed the Saar River, mopped up the Muhlen Woods and fought bitter battles to seize Gudingen, breach the Siegfried Line, force the Rhine and capture Heidelberg. It pushed on through the Hardthauser Woods and Schwabisch Hall to force the Danube River before the war ended.
Following World War II, Gen. Wheeler served in the Field Artillery School, in occupied Germany's U.S. Constabulary and in various staff positions within NATO and on the Army Staff. He took command of the 2nd Armored Division in Fort Hood, Texas, in 1958, and of the III Corps in 1959. He was named director of the Joint Staff in 1960, deputy commander of U.S. forces in Europe in March 1962 and Chief of Staff of the Army in October of the same year. He became Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in July 1964, a month before Congress surrendered its war-making powers to President Lyndon B. Johnson with the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in the aftermath of the Gulf of Tonkin incident.
Benefiting from the breadth of his professional experience, Gen. Wheeler fulfilled his responsibilities towards the Vietnam War in a pragmatic, businesslike manner. When the fall of South Vietnam seemed imminent and President Johnson determined to Americanize the war, rather than accept that result, Wheeler shepherded a timely infusion of American forces that precluded the collapse. The American buildup continued with more than 180,000 in 1965, 385,000 in 1966, 485,000 in 1967 and 536,000 in 1968. American forces performed well, and their logistical support proved to be exceptional. Facing an unconventional adversary, they developed doctrine to match their circumstances and redesigned advisory training systems to accommodate advisory demands on an order of magnitude greater than previous precedent. Gen. Wheeler transformed the force while at war, fully integrating the helicopter and other modern technology in the face of the enemy. When President Richard M. Nixon replaced President Johnson and emphasized Vietnamization to reverse Americanization, Gen. Wheeler methodically reversed the flow of American forces while accelerating programs to develop the South Vietnamese military. Ultimately, the South Vietnamese Army performed capably at the battalion level and below, although it never became independent of American logistical and air support, and its politico-military leadership left much to be desired.
Gen. Wheeler's most perplexing task was sustaining force quality in the absence of National Guard and Organized Reserve participation, assets President Johnson firmly denied the Joint Chiefs despite urgent objections. The mobilization base had to be redesigned, and draftees pushed through it in numbers sufficient to fight the war and meet worldwide demands while compensating for those voluntarily serving but unavailable in the reserve components. Deferments complicated the issue with respect to fairness, numbers and …