Despite a stellar career as a U.S. Army officer, General William Childs Westmoreland is, unfortunately, best remembered for prevaricating about the situations surrounding the Vietnam War.
Criticized for giving positive assessments of worsening conditions in Vietnam, he was ridiculed by the public and media for deliberately deceiving President Lyndon B. Johnson, to maintain support of the war.
Westmoreland was born in Spartanburg County, South Carolina, on March 26, 1914, to a prosperous textile manufacturer. He was graduated from West Point in 1936 at its highest cadet rank of first captain.
During World War II, Westmoreland commanded artillery battalions in Sicily and North Africa. Later, he became Chief of Staff of the Ninth Infantry Division. Shortly after his promotion, he married Katherine S. Van Deusen in 1947. The couple had three children.
Westmoreland commanded the 187th Airborne Infantry in The Korean War, was commander of the 101st Airborne Division and, at the age of 42, became the youngest major general in the United States Army.
Westmoreland in Vietnam
In 1960, Westmoreland was named superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. In June 1964, he was promoted to senior military commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam. He was instrumental in increasing the number of U.S. soldiers in the Vietnam War.
In 1965, Westmoreland developed the aggressive strategy of “search and destroy." The objective was to find and then kill members of the National Liberation Front, or Vietcong. U.S. soldiers found the order difficult to obey. "You never knew who was the enemy and who was the friend. They all looked alike. They all dressed alike," said a marine captain.
Innocent civilians were often killed by mistake. As another marine officer admitted, “They were usually counted as enemy dead under the unwritten rule, 'If he's dead and Vietnamese, he's VC'."
Westmoreland was determined to avoid a repeat of the disaster suffered by the French Army at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. He ordered military operations to be carried out by units of no fewer than 750 men.
In September 1967, the Vietcong launched a series of attacks on U.S. combat units. That was what Westmoreland had hoped for. Now, at last, the NLF was engaging in open warfare.
By the end of 1967, Westmoreland reported that the rebels had lost 90,000 men. He told President Lyndon B. Johnson that the Vietcong would be unable to replenish those kinds of numbers and that the end of the war was near.
The Vietnamese people pay tribute to their ancestors on Tet, their most sacred holiday of the year. In 1968, unknown to upper U.S. military officials, the NLF had celebrated the Tet New Year festival two days early.
On the evening of January 31, 1968, about 85,000 members of the NLF launched a series of coordinated surprise attacks on more than 100 cities, villages, and hamlets throughout South Vietnam. It was now clear that the purpose of the attacks on the U.S. troops in September had been to lure army units away from the cities.
The Vietcong even assaulted the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. Although they managed to enter the embassy compound and kill five U.S. Marines, the NLF was unable to take the building. However, they had more success with Saigon's main radio station.
They captured the building and, although they only held it for a few hours, the event stunned the American people. In recent months they had been told that the NLF was close to defeat, but now the enemy was strong and brazen enough to take control of important buildings in the capital of South Vietnam.
Another upsetting factor was that, even with the large losses of 1967, the Vietcong could still send 85,000 men into battle. The Tet Offensive proved to be a turning point in the war. In military terms it was a victory for the U.S. and South Vietnamese forces. An estimated 37,000 NLF soldiers were killed, compared to 1,100 Americans and 2,800 South Vietnamese. However, it illustrated that the NLF had the resolve to fight for the overthrow of the South Vietnamese government.
Westmoreland was replaced by General Creighton W. Abrams shortly after requesting an additional 200,000 men.
William served as U.S. Army Chief of Staff from 1968 until his retirement in 1972. He then decided to run for governor of South Carolina in 1974, but lost. One year later, Westmoreland published his autobiography, A Soldier Reports. The former general later served on a task force in South Carolina to improve educational standards.
When the year 1982 came around, Mike Wallace sank his talons into the chief when he ambushed Westmoreland in an interview for the CBS special The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception. That didn't go over too well with Westmoreland, and he sued Wallace and CBS for being "unfair." The case was later resolved under settlement agreement.
On July 18, 2005, Westmoreland died at Bishop Gadsden retirement home in Charleston, South Carolina, where he had lived with his wife for several years. He was 91.
“War is fear cloaked in courage.”
“Vietnam was the first war ever fought without any censorship. Without censorship, things can get terribly confused in the public mind.”
“The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does the Westerner.”
---- Selected Quotes ----
Quotes regarding William Westmoreland.
By Dwight D. Eisenhower
I do have one instruction for you, General. Do something about that damned football team.
Comment from Eisenhower to Westmoreland when the latter took over West Point in 1960.