William Westmoreland

William Westmoreland

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.

During the Second World War Westmoreland commanded artillery battalions in Sicily and North Africa. Later he became Chief of Staff of the 9th Infantry Divisions.

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'."

Westmoreland was determined to avoid the kind of disaster suffered by the French Army at Dien Bien Phu. He therefore forbade any military operations by units smaller than about 750 men.

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.

Primary Sources

(1) General William Westmoreland, radio interview (November, 1965)

When the American people read the headlines about victories, there may be a tendency for them to magnify the magnitude of these actions. I do believe that there is a certain danger that we will be overwhelmed by a feeling of optimism and may lose sight of what I consider a true appraisal of the situation ... It involves a long conflict and we must be prepared to accept this.

(2) General William Westmoreland, interviewed for CNN (1998)

At the outset, the president made the statement that he would not geographically broaden the war, and that meant that military actions were confined to the territory of South Vietnam. The enemy was not operating under such restraints, and therefore over the years the border area of Cambodia and Laos were used freely by the enemy. But by virtue of the policy of my government, we could not fight the overt war or deploy military troops overtly into those countries. And that was a major problem. A major problem. That gave the enemy a sanctuary that was of benefit to him. I mean, when he moved into the South Vietnamese soil, he was defeated, he took great casualties; but then he moved across into Cambodia or to Laos, licked his wounds, and restored his military capability. And that is why the war lasted so long. It was a frustrating experience for us... We were winning on the battlefield, but whether we were winning strategically is another matter. But the strategy came from Hanoi and there was little that we could do about it. And the people in Washington - the Secretary of Defense and [the people in] the White House - understood [that] from a military standpoint, [our policies involved] a restraint that was inevitably going to prolong the war. I mean, I think this was well-understood, but nevertheless, it was [our] policy, based on the fact that we were not the aggressors. We were not going to be party to enlarging the war...

We saw the Tet Offensive coming and we were prepared for it. And the enemy took tremendous casualties there; and we felt that the magnitude of those casualties would result in the enemy coming up with some sort of diplomatic solution. But that never took place. ...

The American public were caught by surprise. We were making military progress at the time -- which [is] a statement of fact. And when the Tet Offensive took place, the American people were not prepared for that, and I assume some significant responsibility for that. and I've made this statement many times. If I would have to do it over again, I would have made known the forthcoming Tet Offensive. At that time, I didn't want the enemy to know that I knew what was going to happen. I did know. I made a mistake in not making that known to the American public, because they were caught by surprise and that was a very much of a negative factor.

(3) Bruce Palling, General William Westmoreland, The Guardian (20th July, 2005)

Westmoreland was permanently tainted as the commander of what became the worst military defeat ever suffered by the US. This aura clung to him even years after he had retired. In 1980, during the presidential primaries, he was on the same flight to Charleston, South Carolina, as Republican candidate Ronald Reagan. Reagan's aides whispered to him not to sit next to the general, lest he be smeared by association. During his four-year spell as commander in Vietnam (1964-68), Westmoreland was a textbook version of how a general should look: ramrod straight, well over 6ft tall, with a purposeful jawline and always confident of victory. He never accepted that the North Vietnamese or the Vietcong were capable of ambushing his troops; even incidents where upwards of 50 US troops were killed were invariably described as a "meeting engagement" - an unexpected encounter, rather than an organised one. The worst example of this wilful misrepresentation was his press conference in October 1965, after the slaughter of 155 US troops at Landing Zone Albany, in the battle of Ia Drang: "I consider this an unprecedented victory. At no time during the engagement were American troops forced to withdraw or move back from their positions, except for tactical manoeuvres. The enemy fled from the scene."

This deceit led to widespread cynicism among the US press corps, while much of the rest of the world came to loathe the wholesale destruction heaped on Indochina by his prosecution of the war.

(4) Craig R. Whitney and Eric Pace, New York Times (20th July, 2005)

He never understood the war as a Vietnamese nationalist struggle against French and later American domination. Ho Chi Minh and his Communist successors believed they could out-suffer and outlast those they saw as foreign invaders supporting a "puppet" South Vietnamese regime; General Westmoreland believed that hundreds of thousands of American troops could root out the Communist insurgents and enable freedom and democracy to grow in Vietnam, but that Washington lost its nerve, and lost the war.

"Had President Johnson changed our strategy and taken advantage of the enemy's weakness to enable me to carry out the operations we had prepared over the preceding two years in Laos and Cambodia and north of the demilitarized zone, along with intensified bombing and the mining of Haiphong harbor, the North Vietnamese doubtlessly would have broken," he wrote in his memoirs.

Instead, as he saw it, "The United States in the end abandoned South Vietnam."

President Richard M. Nixon did not take decisive steps to win, and after most United States troops withdrew in 1973 after a cease-fire, Communist tanks rolled into Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) in 1975. "Despite the final failure of the South Vietnamese, the record of the American military services of never having lost a war is still intact," General Westmoreland wrote.

(5) The Morning Call (20th July, 2005)

Gen. Westmoreland blamed civilian leaders for micromanaging, including not allowing him to fight in Laos and Cambodia. His own approach however, was not effective. Heavy air power could not stop mobile guerrillas. He tried to ''search and destroy'' the enemy with U.S. units of 750 men and larger. Historians have written that his basic miscalculation was that he could not kill enemy soldiers faster than they could be replaced, and at war's end, when communist forces took over South Vietnam, their numbers were greater than ever. In other words, he was fighting the last war.

The tragedy was that an officer from the finest traditions of the U.S. military was given an assignment made impossible by miscalculations. Gen. Westmoreland used to say he had to ''fight with only one hand,'' and the limits put on him by President Johnson had that effect. It takes nothing away from the honor of him and those who served with him to say that the United States did not understand what was happening in Southeast Asia in those years - or, at least, understood it too late.