General William Westmoreland, 1914-2005

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General Westmoreland is without doubt the most famous US General who served during the Vietnam War. He was born near Spartanburg on 26th March 1914, the son of a cotton-mill manager. His father’s forebears had served during the Revolutionary War and with the Confederate Army during the American Civil War, so it was natural for William to want to go into the military and after graduating from High School he enrolled at The Citadel, the South Carolinian military college, in 1931. A year later he entered West Point and was quickly nicknamed ‘Westy’ by his classmates who included Creighton Abrams and Benjamin Davis Jr, future commander of the Tuskegee Airmen.  Westmoreland graduated in 1936 and became an artillery officer seeing service during World War 2 in Tunisia, Sicily and in Western Europe. During the War he gained the reputation as an officer who cared for his men although strict in his manner and rose to the rank of colonel. His fast moving artillery battalion was selected to provide support for the 82nd Airborne Division and this began his long association with the Paratroopers - after the war he commanded 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment. In 1947 William Westmoreland married – he had two daughters Katherine and Margaret and a son, James Westmoreland.

Westmoreland also saw service in the Korean War where he commanded the 187th Regimental Combat Team part of the 101st Airborne (Air Assault Division). It was the 187th which put down the mutiny at the Koje-do Prisoner of War camp and led the second and final parachute assault in the Korea War in March 1952. Following promotion to brigadier general at the end of 1953 Westmoreland was attached to the Pentagon for 5 years, becoming in 1956 the youngest major general in the US army at the age of 42. He returned to commanding the paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Division in 1958 and after a few years as superintendent of West Point in the early 1960s he became commander of the XVIII Airborne Corps in 1963.

In June 1964 William Westmoreland began the role that was to make him famous/infamous when he became deputy commander of Military Assistance Command Vietnam known as MACV. Westmoreland’s rapid career path was helped by the fact that many of the officers he had served with during World War 2 were now high ranking and influential, in particular General Maxwell Taylor who commanded the 82nd Airborne Division in Sicily. Westmoreland was very vocal about the US military achievements in Vietnam and from the start he was confident of a US victory even though during his involvement US troop strength went from around 16,000 to over 500,000 by the end of the conflict.  Throughout the war Westmoreland was convinced that the Communist forces could be destroyed by a war of attrition and Westmoreland was key in the shaping of a US military strategy that relyed on heavy use of airpower and artillery, and the old fashioned desire to engage the communist forces in a large scale open battle where superior US forces could destroy them.  The communist forces did not get drawn into this and their guerrilla style of warfare allowed them to dictate the strategic pace and deny the US its technological advantage. Westmoreland never truly understood the North Vietnamese motivation and never accepted that the US was often seen as a foreign invader, he believed that the US lost its nerve and let the South Vietnamese down. He famously claimed that the US won every battle until it lost the war. Westmoreland came under intense criticism after the Tet Offensive in 1968 which although technically a US military victory was perceived as a communist victory. Westmoreland was also critical of the North Vietnamese military leaders for their disregard of the number of causalities their force sustained, this casual disregard for the men under your command was alien to Westmoreland.

On 7th July 1968 as Westmoreland was appointed Army Chief of Staff, a post he would hold until 1972, his brother in law Lt Col Frederick Van Deusen was killed in action. Westmoreland was a controversial Chief of Staff during a difficult time for the US military. Westmoreland suffered a hostile reaction when he tried to give talks on college campuses and was called a war criminal by many anti war protestors. In 1982 Westmoreland came under attack in the press when an interview for CBS implied that he lied about estimated Vietcong troop strength in 1967 to keep US morale and US commitment to the war.  Westmoreland who saw himself as a man of honour was outraged and filed a lawsuit against CBS. In the end the case ended with CBS offering an apology which they had offered early on but some of the journalistic methods used in the production of the programme which included hidden cameras, one way mirrors and covert recording are questionable even by modern standards. The case was acrimonious during which the reporter Mike Wallace was hospitalized for depression but in a gesture typical of Westmoreland, he sent the reporter flowers while he was in hospital.

Post Vietnam Westmoreland  was tasked with helping the army as it adjusted to become a volunteer force again and tried to improve army life and make it a more attractive career for young Americans, this including relaxing some codes on hair length and drinking beer in the mess,  this was not well received with the more conservative Army elements. He also worked hard to highlight the plight of veterans and those that had died in service, he led veteran’s marches in 1982 and 1986 where over 200,000 veterans marched in Chicago - many of those marching wore badges saying “Westy’s Warriors” a testament to a man who was popular among those he commanded. Outside of the military life he dabbled in politics and in 1974 ran for Governor of his home state South Carolina and afterwards worked to help improve educational standards in the state. In 1975 he published his memoirs “A Soldier Reports” which is found at the end of this article.

William Westmoreland will always be a controversial figure, taking the brunt of the blame for the US failure in Vietnam, not without some justification but he was also a long serving soldier who commanded US forces in one World War and on the battlefields of Korea and Vietnam. A tireless campaigner for veterans in later life and much loved commander, standing six foot tall with a strong jaw line he was the classic image of the military commander, but he was also a graduate of Harvard Business School, the first of a new generation of commanders, well educated and more manager than leader in some ways, described by Stanley Karnow as “a corporate executive in uniform”. He died on 18th July 2005 in South Carolina and was buried at West Point Cemetery.

 A Soldier Reports (Paperback), William C. Westmoreland. The autobiography of the most important American general of the Vietnam War, written in 1975 only a few years after the end of his military career. cover cover cover
Bright, Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam, The classic book on Vietnam and a must have, an epic and passionate account of the highs and lows of the war seen through the eyes of a young US officer. If you read just one account of the war then this is it. cover cover cover
How to cite this article: Dugdale-Pointon, T. (6 March 2008), General William Westmoreland, 1914-2005, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/people_westmoreland.html

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