Bruce Palmer Jr., 87; Led Forces in Vietnam
By David Stout,, October 18, 2000
WASHINGTON, Oct. 17--Bruce Palmer Jr., deputy commanding general of American troops in South Vietnam, later Army vice chief of staff and then the author of a book analyzing the military failure of the United States in Southeast Asia, died on Oct. 10 at a hospital in Alexandria, Va. He was 87.
General Palmer, who earned his fourth star as vice chief of staff in 1968 and retired several years later, died of a stroke, his family said. He lived in a retirement community at Fort Belvoir, Va.
Born April 13, 1913, in Austin, Tex., Bruce Palmer Jr. seemed destined to be a soldier. His father was an Army brigadier general, and a grandfather received the Medal of Honor for heroism in the Civil War.
There were 276 graduates in the West Point class of 1936. William C. Westmoreland ranked 112th, and Creighton W. Abrams was 185th. The sixth-ranking graduate was Bruce Palmer Jr., a short and slightly built man known for his aggressive polo playing and devotion to physical conditioning.
Three decades later, General Palmer would be subordinate to Generals Westmoreland and Abrams, both of whom became commanders of all United States forces in South Vietnam as well as Army chiefs of staff.
Early in 1968, General Palmer was rumored to be in line to succeed General Westmoreland as commander, having earlier won the deep respect of Ellsworth Bunker, the United States Ambassador to South Vietnam. Mr. Bunker and General Palmer had worked together in the Dominican Republic in 1965, when the general commanded American troops sent to that country to quell civil war and Mr. Bunker headed diplomatic efforts to end the violence.
As it turned out, President Lyndon B. Johnson tapped General Abrams to replace General Westmoreland in Vietnam. And General Palmer made his biggest imprint on the Vietnam era in retirement, with pen instead of sword.
In 1984, his book, "The 25-Year War: America's Military Role in Vietnam," was published by the University of Kentucky Press. It attracted so much attention from students of the war that it was republished a year later by Simon & Schuster.
General Palmer rejected the notion, widely held in and out of the military, that the Joint Chiefs of Staff had a strategy for winning the war but were hobbled by political interference. On the contrary, he argued; the Joint Chiefs never really decided why American forces were in South Vietnam, and so could not design a winning strategy acceptable to the White House.
In the future, he wrote, the United States would have to adopt new fighting techniques for new kinds of wars. Nor had it been surprising, in his view, that American bombers failed to subdue the North Vietnamese. He noted that North Vietnam got much of its materiel from the Soviet Union or China, and that many military historians believed that heavy bombing had only limited effect even against modern, industrialized countries in World War II.
"Like other so-called `sciences,' the employment of military force - in peace, cold war, or actual conflict - is an art, not an exact science," he wrote.
As a young officer in World War II, he served in Tunisia in 1943 and, a year later, in New Guinea and the Philippines. He was deputy commandant of the Army War College from 1959 to 1961 and held various stateside posts before becoming General Westmoreland's deputy in 1967.
General Palmer, whose decorations included the Silver Star and Bronze Star, was known for a quietly confident leadership style. Officers who served with him said he lost his temper only when he encountered what he thought to be sheer stupidity.
After retiring from the military, he served two years as executive director of the Defense Manpower Commission, which studied the transition to an all-volunteer force.
He was a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute from the mid-1970's to the mid-1980's. He wrote another book, "Intervention in the Caribbean: The Dominican Crisis of 1965" (University of Kentucky Press, 1989).
His wife of 60 years, Kathryn, died in 1996. A daughter, Maurene, died in 1950.
The general is survived by a son, Bruce 3d, of Valrico, Fla.; a daughter, Robin Sessler of Kettering, Ohio; eight grandchildren and a great- granddaughter.
In the closing words of his book on Vietnam, General Palmer wrote: "How deep Vietnam has stamped its imprint on American history has yet to determined. In any event, I am optimistic enough to believe that we Americans can and will learn and profit from our experience."
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© 2000 by Neil Mishalov