An outstanding tank commander in the U.S. Army during World War II, General Creighton W. Abrams (1914-1974) continued to serve in the army in various capacities including commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam from 1968 to 1972 and as Army chief of staff from 1972 to 1974.
Creighton W. Abrams was born on September 15, 1914, in Springfield, Massachusetts. He graduated from West Point in 1936 with a mediocre academic record and a reputation as a prankster. After finishing the Cavalry School at Fort Bliss, Texas, he served with the First Cavalry Division and later with the newly created First Armored Division.
During World War II, Abrams emerged as one of the most aggressive and effective tank commanders in the U.S. Army. He was promoted to lieutenant colonel in September 1942 and in September 1943 he was given command of the 37th Tank Regiment. His regiment led the sweep of Gen. George Patton's Third Army across Europe. In December 1944 it broke through German lines to relieve the defenders of Bastogne. Abrams himself is said to have worn out six tanks during the war, and his outfit was credited with having destroyed more than 300 German vehicles, 150 guns, and 15 tanks. No less an authority than Patton designated Abrams the "best tank commander in the Army."
Following World War II, Abrams carried out a variety of tasks. As director of tactics at the Armored School at Fort Knox, he rewrote the field manual on armored tactics. He subsequently commanded the 63rd Tank Battalion in Europe and the Second Armored Cavalry Regiment. In the Korean War he served as chief of staff of three different army corps.
Promoted to the rank of brigadier general in 1956, Abrams served as deputy assistant chief of staff and as a division commander in Europe. During the domestic crisis caused by racial integration of the universities of Mississippi and Alabama in the early 1960s, he assumed command of the federal troops readied for possible intervention. He was subsequently promoted to major general and appointed vice chief of staff.
In April 1968, Abrams succeeded his West Point classmate Gen. William Westmoreland as commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam. In style, at least, the two men were polar opposites. Westmoreland was formal in manner, immaculate in attire, and by-the-book in approach, while Abrams was informal, even casual, studiedly rumpled in appearance, and crusty in manner. Earthy in language and usually found chomping on a cigar, Abrams also loved gourmet food and classical music. Soft-spoken and tactful, he could, however, in Westmoreland's words, "erupt like a volcano, face crimson, fist pounding the table."
His task in Vietnam was among the most complex and challenging ever faced by an American military leader. During what has been called the Vietnamization period, he was responsible for holding the line militarily in South Vietnam while the United States executed a gradual withdrawal and turned over military responsibility to the South Vietnamese. Although the number of U.S. troops available to him was reduced much more rapidly than he would have preferred, Abrams maintained relentless pressure on Vietcong and North Vietnamese positions in South Vietnam. He gradually shifted American strategy from the search and destroy operations Westmoreland had favored to one that concentrated on defending the population of South Vietnam. He also presided over a vast augmentation of the South Vietnamese armed forces, leaving them with one of the largest and best equipped armies in the world. To buy time for Vietnamization, Abrams planned and executed incursions against North Vietnamese supply lines in Cambodia in 1970 and in Laos in 1971.
In all, Abrams handled a thankless assignment capably. He won the respect and in some cases the devotion of those under him, and in contrast to Westmoreland his plain and earthy demeanor won accolades from a skeptical U.S. press corps. He went out of his way to win the confidence of his Vietnamese counterparts, and he acquired in Vietnam a kind of "father-savior image." When he left Vietnam in June 1972, the South Vietnamese Army was much stronger than when he had come. (In the fierce battles following the North Vietnamese Easter offensive, South Vietnam, with heavy U.S. air support, turned back the enemy.)
Abrams succeeded Westmoreland as Army chief of staff in October 1972. During the little more than two years he served in that capacity, he struggled to protect the Army against the anti-military backlash that developed in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. He presided over a major reorganization which increased the number of divisions from 13 to the 16 he felt the United States needed to maintain its global commitments. He made possible this expansion by streamlining the army's support services, eliminating seven headquarters around the world at an annual savings of millions of dollars.
Abrams died on September 4, 1974, of complications from surgery for lung cancer.
A good overview of the European campaigns of 1944-1945 is found in Russell Weigley, Eisenhower's Lieutenants (1981). Abrams's command in Vietnam is sympathetically appraised in Bruce Palmer, Jr., The 25-Year War: America's Military Role in Vietnam (1984), and more critically assessed in Guenter Lewy, America in Vietnam (1978).
Sorley, Lewis, Thunderbolt: General Creighton Abrams and the army of his times, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992.