Born William Childs Westmoreland, March 26, 1914, in Spartanburg, SC; died July 18, 2005, in Charleston, SC. Military general. William C. Westmoreland was a four-star general who led American troops during a significant portion of the Vietnam War. While the general's leadership in Vietnam was controversial, he had a long, distinguished career in the U.S. Army. Years after the war's end, he filed a high-profile lawsuit against CBS for a documentary which claimed Westmoreland had manipulated intelligence reports during the Vietnam War.
Westmoreland was born in 1914 in Spartanburg, South Carolina. The military was part of his life from the time he was a teenager. He went to school at the Citadel for one year before entering West Point. By the time he graduated in 1936, he was the top student in his class and earned the Pershing Sword as the most militarily proficient cadet. West-moreland then joined the U.S. Army, serving in field artillery at the rank of first captain.
During World War II, Westmoreland served with distinction. First, he was a battalion commander in North Africa and Sicily. The unit Westmoreland commanded was awarded a presidential citation for their heroic actions when they came under fire in Tunisia. He later led troops in conflicts in France, Germany, and Belgium. Westmoreland faced particularly brutal times when his division was able to capture and hold the last standing bridge on the Rhine River, the bridge at Remagen. Westmoreland and his men had to defend the bridge from enemy troops for two weeks; this gave the Allies time to build their own bridge. Their actions helped end World War II in Europe.
After serving as a paratrooper commander during the Korean War, Westmoreland's career took a different direction. While still serving in the Army, he went to the Harvard Business School in a management program. After completing the course, West-moreland worked in the Pentagon as the head of the office of manpower. From 1955 to 1958, he served under Chief of Staff Maxwell Taylor as the secretary to the Army General Staff. Westmoreland then spent two years as the commander of the 101st Airborne Division. In 1960, he was named the superintendent of West Point. Three years later, West-moreland, by then a lieutenant general, was ordered to go to Vietnam.
After a few months of serving as a deputy to U.S. Commander General Paul Harksins, Westmoreland was put in charge of U.S. troops in South Vietnam as the head of Military Assistance Command, Vietnam. He was also promoted to four-star general. Westmoreland assured the American public that the United States would win the war. One way he hoped to accomplish this goal was by increasing the number of American troops in the country. When Westmoreland took over in 1964, there were about 15,000 to 20,000 American "military advisors" in Vietnam; by 1968, there were about a half million American soldiers in Vietnam. Westmoreland measured success in Vietnam by the number of enemy troops killed by the massive number of American troops. The general believed that if the enemy was killed at a rate that would be faster than they could be replaced, the so-called "war of attrition," victory would be imminent.
Westmoreland's strategies lost support over his tenure in Vietnam. The increase in troops did not translate into success for the Americans in Vietnam, and led to the scorn of the American public as more and more American soldiers lost their lives. Despite being named Time magazine's Man of the Year in 1965, Westmoreland became the object of many Americans' discontent about the lack of progress in the war. He had a controversial appearance in front of Congress in 1967 in which Westmoreland was to defend the war, but instead labeled critics of the war unpatriotic. His troubles continued in 1968 when the Tet Offensive by the North Vietnamese caught the Americans and South Vietnamese off guard and resulted in a significant loss of territory. Though the land was eventually regained, it came at great cost and led to more American discontent over the war.
U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson had always limited what Westmoreland could do in the war. West-moreland was not in charge of the South Vietnamese Army nor the bombing raids of North Vietnam. Late in his tenure, Westmoreland pushed for more troops and expansion of the war into Cambodia and Laos. In 1968, Westmoreland asked for 200,000 more troops, but instead was recalled to Washington and reassigned. He was named the Army's chief of staff, but was rarely consulted on matters related to the war by U.S. President Richard M. Nixon. He retired from the U.S. Army in 1972, and moved back to his home state of South Carolina.
Westmoreland turned to public speaking, including many stops on college campuses which were often scenes of protest. In 1974, he tried to launch a political career, running for the Republican nomination for the governor's office in South Carolina. This bid was unsuccessful. Westmoreland published his memoir in 1976, A Soldier Reports, in which he continued to defend his decisions in Vietnam. Westmoreland insisted that the U.S. Army had not lost the war, only the South Vietnamese, because the United States dropped out.
In 1982, Westmoreland re-emerged in the news because of a controversial documentary on CBS entitled The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception. The documentary claimed that Westmoreland personally changed and repressed intelligence information on the North Vietnamese and their troop numbers in the last two years that he was in charge in Vietnam. The documentary also claimed that West-moreland's goal was to hoodwink the American public into thinking the war could be won. West-moreland sued CBS for libel to the tune of $120 million. The case was settled out of court four months after it went to trial in 1984. CBS also admitted there were errors in the documentary.
Westmoreland died at the age of 91 on July 18, 2005, in Charleston, South Carolina, at a retirement home. He is survived by his wife, Katherine Stevens Van Deusen; his son, James Ripley; two daughters, and six grandchildren. Sources: Economist, July 30, 2005, p. 79; Independent (London), July 20, 2005, p. 34; New York Times, July 20, 2005, p. A20; Washington Post, July 19, 2005, p. A1.
— A. Petruso