Creighton Abrams

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Creighton Williams Abrams Jr. (1914-1974) was a four-star United States Army general who, after serving as Vice Chief of Staff of the Army, was the key ground commander in the Vietnam War, 1968-72. He commanded the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MAC-V), and supervised the final U.S. fighting and departure of troops. He then became Chief of Staff of the Army, but died of cancer while in that office.

I'm supposed to be the best tank commander in the Army but I have one peer - Abe Abrams. He's the world champion. — George S. Patton

Abrams was highly respected as a leader who cared for his troops, and as an excellent combat commander. The current main battle tank, the M1 Abrams, is named for him. He was insistent that Army equipment be rugged:

Give a soldier an anvil, just a hunk of metal, and drive him out into the desert and leave him. In two weeks - when you go to get him, the anvil will be broken.

Abrams had a reputation as an exceptionally ethical leader, the man who, in a difficult situation, to whom people would turn to ask "what's the right thing to do?" [1]

It is soldiers who pay most of the human cost. In war it is extraordinary how it all comes down to the character of one man

World War II

Graduating from West Point in the class of 1936, he moved from Cavalry to Armor as soon as it was a branch, first serving in staff roles, then commanding a battalion and a Combat Command (brigade equivalent) of the 4th Armored Division. He received the Distinguished Service Cross, the second highest U.S. decoration for valor, on two occasions.


After the war, he had General Staff and instructor assignments, then graduated from the then-Command and General Staff School. Following command of the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, he graduated from the Army War College. By 1960, he was a major general commanding the 2nd Armored Division, moved to the Pentagon as Army Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations (DCSOPS), and then, as a lieutenant general, commanded the V Corps in Europe.


In May 1967, he came to Vietnam as deputy commander, and in spring 1968, after the Tet Offensive, took command of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, replacing GEN William Westmoreland. Abrams, with a superb reputation as a conventional tank soldier, took a broader view of the war than Westmoreland.

One-war model

Where Westmoreland had seen a conventional military war to be won, with politics the job of others, Abrams conceived it was one war. Westmoreland's successor paid much more attention to political warfare. When Abrams arrived in May 1967, he saw the American-designed system as wasteful defensive installations, of base camps for large conventional forces and static border camps, while the Vietcong continued to build shadow government in the villages. Many villagers believed, rightly or wrongly, that the NLF were more responsive than Republic of Vietnam officials and absentee landlords.

Abrams did not believe the war was purely military, but had to address the political, cultural, economic, religious and security aspects. He argued to consider the “object beyond the war,” not solely on the current military situation with the PAVN. This object focused on the people and their ability for self-defense and governance. An effective strategy would require focusing on winning the hearts and minds of the populace under a legitimate government vice attrition of the enemy.[2]

Abrams formulated the one-war concept, which put political-military relations, disruption of the shadow government, and information operations on an equal priority with combat. He insisted that the grievances of the population, especially in the villages, must be heard and addressed if the true war were to be won. He supported the recommendations of the Pacification and Long Term Development of Vietnam (PROVN) study [3] which found “the underlying objective [must be] ‘the restoration of stability with the minimum of destruction, so that society and lawful government may proceed in an atmosphere of justice and order.’ ”

Abrams changed from "search and destroy" attrition of enemy forces to "clear and hold".

Clear and hold

In the new strategy, regular military forces would suppress the main enemy troops, but then turn local control over to Popular Forces (PF) and Regional Forces (RF) to provide self-defense and hold these areas, with "Strategic Hamlets" taking responsibility for their local defense.

White House

According to documents declassified in 2010, as part of the Foreign Relations of the United States series,[4] Richard Nixon disliked Abrams. In a discussion between Nixon and Henry Kissinger, Kissinger said "Haig is a very creative thinker. We will just tell the damn military to have their own schedule. This is no problem." Nixon replied, "Abrams doesn’t think creatively." Kissinger acknowledged with "No he is a shell."[5] Abrams continued to ask for more freedom in delivering air strikes, which largely were granted.

Nixon sent a memo to Kissinger in May 1972, saying

I do not mean to suggest that Abrams from to time did not fit this

mold [of "out-of-the-box thinking"]], particularly when he was under Patton in World War II. Haig certainly is an exception. But we will have to admit that while the bravery of our forces in Vietnam has been far beyond the call of duty, our military leadership has been a sad chapter in the proud military history of this country. I know that the military make the politicians the scapegoat—and in some instances with pretty good reason. But during the past three and a half years when we have begged them to come up with new initiatives, they have invariably failed to do so and when we have come up with new initiatives they have dragged their feet or even openly blocked them.


Chief of Staff

Abrams was not known as a strong proponent of special operations forces, concerned that they diluted the regular forces. In 1974, however, he did, however, re-establish the 75th Ranger Regiment, initially with two battalions, reforming the first post-World War II battalion-sized Ranger units. He was intimately involved with forming the new units, which are sometimes called "Abrams' Own." His rationale was not only that they were a useful force, they were standard-setters for conventional forces rather than autonomous specialized units.[7]

Total Force concept

Abrams, and Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird, promoted the Total Force concept, as one way to avoid entanglements, without widespread public support, such as the Vietnam War. Total Force moved most of the combat support and combat service support functions of the Army — the units required for sustained operations — into the Army Reserve. At the time, it took a substantial Congressional action to activate the Reserves, and Abrams and Laird believed that such a decision would be more considered than the "blank check" of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.[8]

Total Force complemented the Congressional initiative of the War Powers Act. Both were "tripwires" against excessive commitments solely by a President. Neither has worked as intended with the long-term Iraq War.

In addition to the tripwire concept, Abrams had been chartered with making the Army an all-volunteer force, and believed that was affordable only if the active components were the principal combat arms, with support in the less expensive part-time reserve components.


  1. Leatherman, John E. (1 April 1998), General Creighton Abrams: Ethical Leadership at the Strategic Level, Army War College, ADA339280
  2. McAlexander, Joseph C., IV (December 2007), Hearts and Minds: Historical Counterinsurgency Lessons to Guide the War of Ideas in the Global War on Terrorism, Air Command and Staff College, Wright Flyer Paper No. 29 pp 12-14
  3. Sorley, Lewis (Spring 1998), "To Change a War: General Harold K. Johnson and the PROVN Study", Parameters: 93-109
  4. John Carland, ed., Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969–1976, vol. Volume VIII, Vietnam, January–October 1972, U.S. Department of State
  5. John Carland, ed. (5 February 1972), Transcript of a Telephone Conversation Between President Nixon and the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger), Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969–1976, vol. Volume VIII, Vietnam, January–October 1972, U.S. Department of State, Document 17
  6. John Carland, ed. (15 May 1972), Memorandum From President Nixon to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger) and the President’s Deputy Assistant for National Security Affairs (Haig), Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969–1976, vol. Volume VIII, Vietnam, January–October 1972, U.S. Department of State, Document 147
  7. George Casey (April 18, 2008), Abrams' Own still sets the standard, U.S. Army
  8. Carafano, James Jay (April 18, 2005), "The Army Reserves and the Abrams Doctrine: Unfulfilled Promise, Uncertain Future", Heritage Foundation