Westmoreland, William Childs

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Westmoreland, William Childs

(b. 26 March 1914 in Saxon, South Carolina; d. 18 July 2005 in Charleston, South Carolina), U.S. Army general whose controversial strategy as the commander of American forces in Vietnam from 1964 to 1968 divided the nation and dimmed the brilliance of his thirty-six-year military career.

Called “Childs” as a youth and “Westy” as an adult, Westmoreland was the only son and the first of two children born to James Ripley “Rip” Westmoreland, a prosperous cotton-mill manager and banker, and Eugenia Talley “Mimi” (Childs) Westmoreland, who, like her husband, was a descendant of a well-connected southern family with antebellum roots. Westmoreland thus grew up amid wealth and privilege in the segregated society and small towns of Spartanburg County, in the Carolina Piedmont. He attended Pacolet grammar school and graduated from Spartanburg High School in 1931. He was a middling student and, by his own admission, “a straight arrow” who nonetheless emerged as a leader among his peers in scouting and in school. Attaining the rank of Eagle Scout, he attended the 1929 World Jamboree of Boy Scouts, in Birkenhead, England (making a side trip to France and Germany).

Westmoreland enrolled in his father’s alma mater, the Citadel, formally the Military College of South Carolina. He had intended to prepare for law school but instead embraced the military life, drawn to its traditions, ceremonies, and discipline. Moreover, after his visit to England and continental Europe, he was determined to see the world, and the army, he said, would give him that opportunity. Westmoreland left the Citadel after a year, and then, through the agency of a family friend, Senator James F. Byrnes (D-SC), was appointed to the U.S. Military Academy, at West Point, New York, in the class of 1936. From his plebe year onward, both the faculty and his classmates rewarded him with key command positions. In his final year he led the cadet corps as first captain and regimental commander. Westmoreland ranked 112th academically (among 276 cadets) but graduated eighth in his class because of the military skills that earned him the Pershing Sword, the academy’s highest cadet honor.

To admirers and detractors alike, Westmoreland seemed born to command. A handsome man, he stood six feet tall, with his posture ramrod straight, his body trim and fit. In Vietnam he would become renowned for taking breakfast in his underwear so that his shirt and pants would be unwrinkled when he put them on to go about his day’s business. He was a stickler for detail and prided himself on giving priority to the well-being of his men. His major weaknesses, his critics said, were aloofness and a lack of warmth. His supporters saw him as the exemplar of the American military tradition.

From West Point until Vietnam, Westmoreland lived a charmed life, moving rapidly up the ladder of command and making powerful military and political friends. He was posted first to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, as a second lieutenant in the field artillery and then to Hawaii and North Carolina between 1936 and 1942. In that six-year period he advanced through four grades to the rank of lieutenant colonel and command of the Thirty-fourth Field Artillery Battalion, Ninth Infantry Division, which he led in the North African and Sicilian campaigns of World War II, in 1942 and 1943. During the Normandy invasion, he landed on Utah Beach on 10 June 1944 as the division’s executive officer and was later its chief of staff. Promoted to colonel in July, he led combat artillery teams in France, Belgium, and Germany. The high point of his World War II service came in March 1945 at Remagen, Germany, where during two weeks of fierce fighting he directed the artillery defending the last bridge standing on the Rhine River, an engagement that significantly shortened the war. Westmoreland returned home in 1946 for airborne training at Fort Benning, Georgia, and a three-year assignment as divisional chief of staff with the Eighty-second Airborne at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. On 3 May 1947 he married Katherine “Kitsy” Stevens Van Deusen, a recent graduate of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. The couple had three children.

In the next decade Westmoreland held a variety of command and staff assignments, each of which advanced his career and his reputation. In 1950 he held simultaneous teaching appointments at the Command and General Staff College and at the Army War College, both of which were then in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas; he taught only at the Army War College, following its move to Carlisle, Pennsylvania, in 1951. The next year, during the Korean War, he commanded the 187th Airborne Regimental Combat Team in two engagements in Korea, after which the unit was held in reserve in Japan, where Westmoreland was promoted to brigadier general in November 1952.

A year later he was recalled to Washington for staff assignments at the Pentagon, and he attended the Advanced Management Program at Harvard Business School in 1954. In December 1956, while serving on the army’s general staff, he became, at age forty-two, the youngest major general in the U.S. Army. In April 1958 Westmoreland assumed command of the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. His last staff assignment before the Vietnam War took him to West Point, where he was superintendent from 1960 to 1963. Shortly after his promotion to lieutenant general, in January 1964, he was ordered by President Lyndon B. Johnson to Southeast Asia as deputy commander of the U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV).

The Vietnam that Westmoreland entered in 1964 was a world away from the Vietnam he would leave four years later. Some 16,000 Americans were then stationed there, but combat duty was restricted to a limited number of Special Operations personnel and helicopter crews who worked with the South Vietnamese Army in a provincial “pacification” program intended to root out and destroy the Vietcong, the military wing of the National Liberation Front, the insurgents seeking to topple the Saigon government. The majority of Americans were noncombatant advisers to the poorly trained and ineffective government army, which, like the government itself, suffered from widespread corruption, incompetence, and bitter rivalries. Hoping to change the situation and energize the South Vietnamese in what he believed was an anti-Communist war, President Johnson named Westmoreland MACV commander in June 1964 and gave him broad authority to increase the American role in fighting the insurgency. Westmoreland, who was promoted to four-star general in November, devised a strategy of attrition that would inflict greater losses on the enemy than they could sustain through a three-part tactical approach entailing search-and-destroy missions, clear-and-hold operations, and free-fire zones.

In April 1965 President Johnson authorized an increase in troop strength and the use of American troops in combat. In November, U.S. infantry successfully engaged the Vietcong and North Vietnamese Army in a bloody and costly battle in the Ia Drang Valley, near the Cambodian border, and Time magazine made Westmoreland its 1965 Man of the Year. However, neither the steady stream of reinforcements that arrived over the next three years (470,000 troops by 1968) nor Westmoreland’s strategy of attrition stopped the North Vietnamese, largely because American tactics were better suited to large-scale warfare than to counter insurgency. All that Westmoreland’s strategy produced was a stalemate. Despite horrendous losses inflicted on the enemy, the North Vietnamese met with little difficulty in reinforcing their units in the south from safe bases in Laos and Cambodia, which President Johnson, for political and logistical reasons, had ruled could not be attacked. Meanwhile, although the Americans never lost a military engagement, the number of American dead and wounded mounted steadily without any clear signs of impending victory, and an antiwar movement gained strength at home.

Westmoreland looked for political support in the spring and fall of 1967 in visits to the United States, where he asked for but did not receive 200,000 additional troops and where he told a joint session of Congress that his search-and-destroy missions had limited the enemy’s ability to fight. In January 1968, as if to mock his words, the North Vietnamese and the Vietcong first surrounded the marine garrison at Khe Sahn, beginning a siege that lasted six months, and then unleashed simultaneous attacks on one hundred cities, towns, and military installations in the Tet Offensive. Although they were beaten back and sustained losses in the tens of thousands, the political fallout in America was enormous. When Westmoreland asked for additional reinforcements, the president turned him down. In March 1968 the general was promoted to army chief of staff and recalled to Washington.

As army chief of staff, Westmoreland supervised the American withdrawal from Vietnam and the changeover to an all-volunteer army. He retired from active duty on 1 July 1972. Returning to Charleston, South Carolina, he served as chairman of a state-sponsored economic task force from 1972 to 1974 and then made an unsuccessful run for the Republican gubernatorial nomination. He left politics to complete his memoir, A Soldier Reports (1976), and then set out on a personal mission to reshape the interpretation of the war and defend his troops, who had returned from Southeast Asia to public indifference and verbal abuse. Over the course of the next twenty-five years he spoke in all fifty states, wrote newspaper articles to correct what he saw as errors in the historical record, and lectured at dozens of colleges, where he often encountered angry protesters. In 1982, in response to the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) documentary The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception, which implied that he had conspired with subordinates to lie to President Johnson about enemy troop strength in Vietnam, Westmoreland sued CBS for libel. After an eighteen-week trial, he settled for an apology from the network just as the case was to go to the jury.

Throughout his long campaign to set the record straight, Westmoreland was buoyed by the warm reception he received from Vietnam veterans across the country for his defense of their loyal service. He was the keynote speaker at the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, in Washington, D.C., in November 1982. When Chicago gave veterans the country’s first collective welcome home in May 1986, Westmoreland led the parade of 200,000 veterans, many of whom wore badges inscribed with the legend “Westy’s Warriors.” Both events, he told an interviewer, were among the high points of his career. Westmoreland died of natural causes at his home in the Bishop Gadsden retirement community, in Charleston. He is buried in the Post Cemetery, at the U.S. Military Academy, in West Point, New York.

If Vietnam had never happened, Westmoreland would perhaps have been remembered more positively. His fate, however, was to be the commander in an unpopular and possibly unwinnable war that was governed by political decisions beyond his control. He was not allowed to “enlarge the battlefield” to strike at the safe havens that the enemy enjoyed in North Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Trained in large-scale military operations, he was unable to make the strategic adjustments required to defeat a guerrilla army. In the end, he was a victim of the administration’s failure after the Tet Offensive to convince the American public that the war in Vietnam was worth fighting.

Westmoreland’s papers are in the Manuscripts Division of the South Caroliniana Library, at the University of South Carolina; in the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library; and in the Department of Defense’s U.S. Army Center of Military History. His indispensable memoir, A Soldier Reports (1976), was recorded by Charles MacDonald, a military historian, from taped interviews and notes supplied by Westmoreland. Ernest B. Furgurson, Westmoreland: The Inevitable General (1968), offers the best accounting of Westmoreland’s boyhood and pre-Vietnam career. In his Westmoreland: A Biography of General William C. Westmoreland (1994), Samuel Zaffiri is generally sympathetic in his reassessment of the Vietnam years; David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest (1972), is sharply critical of both Westmoreland and President Johnson. See also Bruce Palmer, Jr., The 25-Year War: America’s Military Role in Vietnam (1984); General Palmer was Westmoreland’s classmate and his deputy in Vietnam. Regarding Westmoreland’s suit against CBS, see Renata Adler, Reckless Disregard: Westmoreland v. CBS et al., Sharon v. Time (1986); and Bob Brewin and Sydney Shaw, Vietnam on Trial: Westmoreland vs. CBS (1987). Obituaries are in the New York Times and Washington Post (both 19 July 2005).

Allan L. Damon

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