BY JOHN PRADOS
In July Americans learned of the
passing of General William C. Westmoreland, commander of U.S.
forces in South Vietnam during the buildup and escalation of the
war in Southeast Asia, climaxing with the Tet Offensive and Battle
of Khe Sanh in 1968. Seen by some as “the inevitable general” and
by others as a tragic figure, Westmoreland epitomized the American
drive to win—rather than settle—the Vietnam War.
When “Westy” reached Saigon in 1964
the American role in the Vietnam conflict was rapidly growing but
had yet to evolve into a major combat. By the time he left in
mid-1968, Vietnam had been transformed into the biggest military
engagement the United States had undertaken since World War II.
Between 1968 and 1972, when the Johnson and Nixon administrations
moved to reduce American involvement, Westmoreland continued to
preside over the action as Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army
Gen. Westmoreland arrived in South
Vietnam in January 1964 as deputy to Gen. Paul D. Harkins, who
headed the Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV). There were
about 16,000 American troops in South Vietnam. Combat duty was
restricted to Special Forces, covert air units, and combat support
elements such as helicopter units that worked with the South
Westy replaced Harkins at the head
of MACV in June 1964, just before the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, one
step on the road to the massive expansion of the American role in
the war. Washington policymakers at the time attributed the
inability of the Saigon government and South Vietnamese armed
forces to make much headway against the insurgency mounted by the
National Liberation Front to a lack of military know-how. Gen.
Westmoreland, a product of traditional American military thinking,
subscribed to that view.
William Childs Westmoreland was
born in Spartanburg County, South Carolina, on March 26, 1914. He
was the son of a cotton mill manager who became an investment
banker. His father wanted Westy to be a banker; the son wanted
nothing more than to be a soldier. Westy’s great-uncle had been
with Robert E. Lee at Appomattox. When he won an appointment to
West Point, courtesy of James F. Byrnes, the uncle assuaged his
Confederate sympathies by recollecting that Lee also had gone to
the U.S. Military Academy. Having spent a year at The Citadel,
Westmoreland entered West Point in 1932, graduating with the Class
of 1936. That class produced several notable American generals,
including Vietnam War colleagues Bruce Palmer and Creighton V.
Abrams, and Gen. Benjamin O. Davis.
Young Westmoreland wanted to be an airman but failed the eye exam
and ended up in the field artillery at Hawaii’s Schofield
Barracks. Later, at Fort Sill, he met a child, the daughter of a
superior, who joked that she would wait for him to grow up.
Katharine (“Kitsy”) Van Deusen looked him up after World War II
and they married. Westy had gone to war as operations officer of
the 34th Artillery Battalion of the 9th Infantry Division. He was
sent to North Africa late in 1942 and took command of the unit in
time to fight against Field Marshal Rommel in the Battle of the
Kasserine Pass, during which the 28-year-old Army major won his
first combat chops.
Westmoreland devised new methods for rapid movement of his
artillery guns, which he employed in Sicily to help the 82nd
Airborne Division, whose artillery commander, Gen. Maxwell D.
Taylor, was greatly impressed. The 9th Division landed at Utah
Beach a few days after D-Day in 1944, and Westmoreland remained
with it, rising to division chief of staff. He crossed the Rhine
River at Remagen Bridge on the hood of a darkened Jeep,
instructing his driver how to move forward in the night. On
several occasions during the war, including at Remagen, German
shells and mines exploded near Westy. But he was never harmed and
won medals for bravery.
After the war, Westmoreland commanded an infantry regiment (and
briefly, the 71st Division) in the occupation of Germany. He went
to Airborne School and commanded a paratroop regiment before
serving as an instructor at the Command and General Staff College
and the Army War College.
In 1952, Col. Westmoreland went to Korea as commander of the 187th
Airborne Regimental Combat Team and led the unit in the only
American parachute assault of the war. Not long afterwards, he was
promoted to brigadier general. Gen. Matthew B. Ridgway, the Army
Chief of Staff, who had met Westy in Sicily, brought him onto the
Army staff to handle manpower issues. Taylor, Ridgway’s successor,
elevated Westmoreland to Secretary of the General Staff, a key
position he held until 1958. Gen. Westmoreland commanded the 101st
Airborne Division, the Corps of Cadets at West Point, and the
XVIII Airborne Corps. He then went to Saigon.
Every inch the paratrooper—a combat arm that dominated the Army at
this time as carrier pilots
did the Navy and heavy bomber commanders the Air
Force—Westmoreland was representative of an intellectual elite of
innovative, forward-thinking officers. His methods, however,
proved inadequate in Vietnam. Hampered by the poor preparation of
the U.S. Army to fight a counterinsurgency war, as well as his own
predilection for firepower-intensive mass operations, Westmoreland
tried to fight a conventional war in Vietnam while his adversary
relied upon guerrilla tactics.
During the 1965-67 phase of the war, MACV under Gen. Westmoreland
proposed a series of incremental force increases that were
partially approved by President Lyndon B. Johnson and yielded a
force level of 470,000 troops by the end of that period. In the
first part of the period, the deployment of forces with fresh
methods—such as the 1st Cavalry Division, which entered the
Central Highlands and fought the 1965 Battle of the Ia Drang
Valley—gave American operations a sense of dynamism and agility.
Westy worked to emphasize that impression, packing his days with
events that took him by helicopter and aircraft from the south end
of the Saigon zone to the north, and from inspection to press
conference to command post deliberations within the same working
day. Time Magazine made Gen. Westmoreland its Man of the Year in
The steady parade of reinforcements served to obscure the
inability of American tactics to meet the enemy at its own level
of warfare. Westmoreland’s strategy of attrition did not yield
visible results. His principal tactical methods—search-and-destroy
operations, clear-and-hold tactics, and free-fire zones—assumed
the adversary had made the transition to large-unit operations.
His plans for invasions of Laos or North Vietnam to cut the Ho Chi
Minh Trail or isolate the Liberation Front by striking at its rear
base, were not logistically or politically feasible.
Westmoreland kept a continuous eye on the northernmost provinces
of South Vietnam, successfully countering North Vietnamese efforts
to cross the Demilitarized Zone, but enabling the enemy to match
American and South Vietnamese strength elsewhere. His strategy
preserved a stalemate in the war by means of increasing
commitments of force. When his request for some 200,000 troops in
the spring of 1967 led President Johnson to cap American forces in
Vietnam, the situation became increasingly fragile.
Gen. Westmoreland attempted to shore up political support for the
Vietnam War in the spring and fall of 1967. He made visits to the
United States and gave speeches and other statements that
presented the Vietnam situation in an optimistic light. He also
stood aside while MACV intelligence authorities manipulated the
Order of Battle estimates of the enemy to convey the impression
that its attrition strategy had seriously reduced the adversary.
When North Vietnamese and National Liberation Front forces
launched major attacks throughout South Vietnam in the 1968 Tet
Offensive, Westmoreland’s statements were called into question.
When, during the first days of the attack with friendly forces
having barely held on to the American Embassy, Westy compared the
enemy’s situation to that of the Germans at the Battle of the
Bulge, the credibility of MACV diminished even more. When
Westmoreland used Tet as an opportunity to re-submit essentially
the same troop request rejected in 1967—a massive increment of
206,000 new forces—Tet began to seem like a political defeat
regardless of the heavy losses inflicted upon the North Vietnamese
and National Liberation Front.
Meanwhile at Khe Sanh, in a notable application of
Gen.Westmoreland’s basic approach, a saturation bombing and
firepower effort he called Operation Niagara succeeded in breaking
the North Vietnamese siege of that key combat base. The fixation
on Khe Sanh, however, helped Hanoi achieve surprise on Tet in
other places in South Vietnam.
Shortly after an overland relief expedition that Westmoreland
organized freed the garrison of Khe Sanh, President Johnson
announced Westy’s promotion to Army Chief of Staff. Westy took up
the reins in Washington in July 1968. He supported his successor
at MACV, Gen. Creighton Abrams, who changed tactics to a more
pacification-oriented approach. Westmoreland also played
significant roles in experimenting with new Army organizations,
including the triple capability (airmobile, armor, infantry) army
division, the development of what became the M-1 Abrams tank, and
the end of the draft and creation of the all-volunteer army, which
helped end the morale problems that became endemic in the Army
during the latter stages of the Vietnam War.
Westmoreland retired at the height of the NVA’s Easter Offensive
in July 1972. He returned to the family home in Spartanburg, South
Carolina. He published his memoir, A Soldier Reports, in 1976. He
marched at the head of the parade of veterans and gave the keynote
speech at the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1982.
After a CBS Television documentary, “Vietnam: The Uncounted
Enemy,” alleged that Gen. Westmoreland and others had been
complicit in a deliberate manipulation of the Vietnam War
intelligence, the general filed a $120 million libel suit against
the television network. The suit went to trial in 1984. The suit
produced evidence that manipulation had, in fact, occurred. When a
former MACV intelligence chief broke ranks and furnished testimony
that contradicted Westmoreland’s case, he settled the suit with
CBS in exchange for the network’s apology.
Afterwards the general lived quietly in retirement. He died at age
91 of natural causes on July 18 at the Bishop Gadsden Retirement
Home in Charleston, where he had lived for several years.