He became an armored officer early in the development of that branch and served as a tank company commander in the 1st Armored Division in 1940.
During much of this time his unit was at the spearhead of the 4th Armored Division and the Third Army, and he was consequently well known as an aggressive armor commander. By using his qualities as a leader and by consistently exploiting the relatively small advantages of speed and reliability of his vehicles he managed to defeat German forces who had the advantage of superior armor, superior guns and better trained troops. He was twice decorated with the Distinguished Service Cross, second only to the Medal of Honor, for actions on September 20, 1944 and December 26, 1944.
Abrams was known as an aggressive and successful armor commander. General George Patton said of him, "I'm supposed to be the best tank commander in the Army, but I have one peer: Abe Abrams. He's the world champion." His unit was frequently the spearhead of the Third Army during WWII. Abrams was one of the leaders in the relief effort which broke up the German entrenchments surrounding Bastogne and the 101st Airborne Division during the Battle of the Bulge.
He was noted for his concern for soldiers, his emphasis on combat readiness, and his insistence on personal integrity.
He commanded the 63d Tank Battalion, part of the 1st Infantry Division, in Europe (1949 - 1951). He was again promoted to colonel and commanded the 2d Armored Cavalry Regiment (1951-1952). These units were important assignments due to the Cold War concern for potential invasion of western Europe by the Soviet Union. He then attended and graduated from the Army War College in 1953.
He was promoted to General in 1964 and appointed Vice Chief of Staff of the Army (he was seriously considered as a candidate for Chief of Staff at that time). Due to concerns about the conduct of the Vietnam War, he was appointed as deputy to General William Westmoreland, head of the Military Assistance Command in Vietnam, in May 1967. He succeeded Westmoreland as commander on June 10, 1968. His tenure of command was not marked by the public optimism of his predecessors, who were prone to press conferences and public statements. While Westmoreland had for years run the war, using search and destroy tactics, these gave way to the clear and hold strategies that Abrams was so keen to implement. Under his authority, American forces were broken up into small units that would live with and train the South Vietnamese civilians to defend their villages from northern incursion. He also devoted vastly more time than his predecessor had to expanding, training, and equipping the ARVN. His strategy was surprisingly successful and as a result, the South won a colossal victory over the NVA in the Easter Offensive. While Abrams was changing the way the war was fought however, public and political support for his efforts at home had dwindled substantially. Before his gains had a chance of being consolidated, most of the American troops had been pulled out by 1972, when he stepped down from the Military Assistance Command. With the exception of American Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker and Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu, Abrams disdained most of the politicians with whom he was forced to deal and had an even lower opinion of defense contractors whom he accused of war profiteering. He held a particularly bilious contempt for Robert McNamara and McGeorge Bundy. Following the election of President Richard Nixon he implemented the Nixon Doctrine referred to as Vietnamization. Vietnamization was designed to wind down U.S. involvement in Vietnam, and have South Vietnam responsible for executing the war.
Troop strength under Abrams decreased from 535,000 in December 1968 to 140,000 in December 1971 to 30,000 combat troops at the end of 1972. Abrams was in charge of the Cambodian Incursion in 1970. Although it occurred before he assumed total command, he bore the brunt of fallout from the My Lai massacre in March 1968.
Abrams married Julia Bertha Abrams (1915 - 2003) in 1936. She founded the Army group of "Arlington Ladies" and devoted a great deal of her time to humanitarian causes. They had three daughters and three sons. The sons all became Army officers, and all of the daughters married Army officers.
Survivors include three sons, retired Army Brigadier Gen. Creighton Williams Abrams III of Springfield, retired Army General John Nelson Abrams of Annandale and Brigadier General Robert Bruce Abrams of Texas; three daughters, Noel Bradley of Buffalo, Jeanne Daly of Annandale and Elizabeth Doyle of Nashville; 19 grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.
He converted to Roman Catholicism while serving in Vietnam, formerly being a Methodist.
Abrams is buried with his wife in Section 21 of Arlington National Cemetery.