William Westmoreland, the son of a prosperous textile manufacturer, was born in Spartanburg County, South Carolina, on 26th March, 1914. He attended West Point and despite his poor academic record he was awarded the highest command position in the cadet corps in his senior year.
Westmoreland commanded the 187th Airbourne Infantry in the Korean War. He also became commander of the 101st Airborne Division, though he never actually made a combat jump. At the age of 42 became the youngest major general in the United States Army.
In 1960 Westmoreland was appointed superintendent of West Point in 1960. Four years later he was sent to Vietnam. In April, 1964, Westmoreland was made military commander of South Vietnam, in part because of his ostensible knowledge of guerrilla warfare. In this post he played an important role in increasing the number of U.S. soldiers fighting in the Vietnam War.
Westmoreland believed that if he attacked the National Liberation Front with overwhelming force he could win by attrition. This included a massive bombing, artillery and defoliation campaigns. This strategy did result in the Vietnamese suffering heavy losses, an estimated 2 million people. However, it did not break their will. In fact, this strategy only increased the number of people willing to fight the United States Army. As the war journalist, Stanley Karnow pointed out: "Westmoreland did not understand - nor did anyone else understand - that there was not a breaking point. Instead of breaking their morale, they were breaking ours."
In 1965, Westmoreland developed the aggressive strategy of 'search and destroy'. The objective was to find and then kill members of the NLF. The US soldiers found this difficult. As one marine captain explained: "You never knew who was the enemy and who was the friend. They all looked alike. They all dressed alike." Innocent civilians were often killed by mistake. As one Marine officer admitted they "were usually counted as enemy dead, under the unwritten rule 'If he's dead and Vietnamese, he's VC'."
In September, 1967, the NLF launched a series of attacks on American garrisons. Westmoreland was delighted. Now at last the National Liberation Front was engaging in open combat. At the end of 1967, Westmoreland was able to report that the NLF had lost 90,000 men. He told President Lyndon B. Johnson that the NLF would be unable to replace such numbers and that the end of the war was in sight.
Every year on the last day of January, the Vietnamese paid tribute to dead ancestors. In 1968, unknown to the Americans, the NLF celebrated the Tet New Year festival two days early. For on the evening of 31st January, 1968, 70,000 members of the NLF launched a surprise attack on more than a hundred cities and towns in Vietnam. It was now clear that the purpose of the attacks on the US garrisons in September had been to draw out troops from the cities.
The NLF even attacked the US Embassy in Saigon. Although they managed to enter the Embassy grounds and kill five US 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 shocked the self-confidence of the American people. In recent months they had been told that the NLF was close to defeat and now they were strong enough to take important buildings in the capital of South Vietnam. Another disturbing factor was that even with the large losses of 1967, the NLF could still send 70,000 men into battle.
The Tet Offensive proved to be a turning point in the war. In military terms it was a victory for the US forces. An estimated 37,000 NLF soldiers were killed compared to 2,500 Americans. However, it illustrated that the NLF appeared to have inexhaustible supplies of men and women willing to fight for the overthrow of the South Vietnamese government.
Westmoreland requested a further 200,000 troops to add to the existing 550,000. President Lyndon B. Johnson refused and in March, 1968, announced he was seeking peace talks with North Vietnam.
Westmoreland was replaced by General Creighton W. Abrams in 1968. On his return to the United States he was appointed as Chief of Staff to the United States Army. However, President Richard Nixon rarely consulted him and he was never promoted to the post of chairman of the joint chiefs of staff.
William Westmoreland retired in 1972. A member of the Republican Party, Westmoreland was unsuccessful in 1974 in his attempt to become governor of South Carolina. His memoirs, A Soldier Reports, was published in 1980.
In 1982, Westmoreland waged a long and costly libel action over a CBS documentary which claimed that he had deliberately misled the Pentagon and the public about the true strength of the communist forces in South Vietnam. Westmoreland failed to win his libel claim and eventually he had to accept a CBS statement that they did not mean to "impugn his honour".
William Westmoreland died of natural causes at Bishop Gadsden retirement home on 18th July, 2005.