William Westmoreland

[west-mawr-luhnd, -mohr-]
William C. Westmoreland (March 26, 1914July 18, 2005) was an American General who commanded American military operations in the Vietnam War at its peak from 1964 to 1968 and who served as U.S. Army Chief of Staff from 1968 to 1972.

Early career

William Westmoreland was born in Spartanburg County, South Carolina in 1914. His upper class family was involved in the banking and textile industries. Westmoreland, an Eagle Scout and recipient of the Distinguished Eagle Scout Award and Silver Buffalo from the Boy Scouts of America as an adult, entered West Point in 1932 after one year at The Citadel. Westmoreland was a member of a distinguished class at West Point in which his classmates included Creighton Abrams who replaced him in 1968, and Benjamin O. Davis Jr.; he graduated as first captain - the highest rank - and received the Pershing Sword, given to the most able cadet. His initial motive for entering was "(to) see the world." Following graduation in 1936 he became an artillery officer and served in several different commands, taking part in combat operations in Tunisia, Sicily, France and Germany, and reaching the ranks of lieutenant colonel and subsequently colonel during combat operations in Europe during World War II. Westmoreland always balanced a reputation as a stern taskmaster with that of an officer who cared about his men and took a great interest in their welfare. One called him "the most caring officer, for soldiers, that I have ever known". He was also a graduate of Harvard Business School. Westmoreland was a new type of officer, better educated than his predecessors and more managerial in outlook. As Stanley Karnow noted, "Westy was a corporation executive in uniform."

During World War II, his battalion was selected to be the artillery support for the 82nd Airborne Division. By war’s end, he was serving as the chief of staff of the 9th Infantry Division.

Regimental and divisional commands

Westmoreland's World War II experience with the 82nd Airborne led to his being asked by General James M. Gavin to join the 82nd as a regimental commander after the war, which was the beginning of his professional association with airborne and airmobile troops. He served with the 82nd Airborne for four years.

During the Korean War he commanded the 187th Regimental Combat Team.

In late 1953 Westmoreland was promoted brigadier general and spent the next 5 years at The Pentagon. At age 42, in 1956, he became the youngest major general in the Army. In 1958 he assumed command of the 101st Airborne Division. In 1960 he became superintendent of West Point, and in 1963 became commander of the XVIII Airborne Corps.


In June 1964, he became deputy commander of Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), assuming command from General Paul D. Harkins. As the head of the MACV he was known for highly publicized, positive assessments of US military prospects in Vietnam. However, as time went on, the strengthening of North Vietnamese combat forces in the South led to regular requests for increases in US troop strength, from 16,000 when he arrived to its peak of 535,000 in 1968 when he was promoted to Army Chief of Staff.

Under Westmoreland's leadership, the United States "won every battle until it lost the war." The turning point of the war was the 1968 Tet Offensive, in which Communist forces, having baited Westmoreland into committing nearly 40% of his strength to Khe Sanh, attacked cities and towns throughout South Vietnam. US and South Vietnamese troops successfully fought off the attacks, and the Communist forces took heavy losses, but the NVA General Vo Nguyen Giap orchestrated negative media coverage shook public confidence in Westmoreland's previous assurances about the state of the war. Political debate and public opinion led the Johnson administration to limit further increases in US troops in Vietnam. When news of the My Lai Massacre broke, Westmoreland resisted pressure from the Nixon administration for a cover-up, and pressed for a full and impartial investigation by William R. Peers.

Westmoreland was convinced that the Vietnamese communists could be destroyed by fighting a war of attrition that, theoretically, would render the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese unable to fight. His war strategy was marked by heavy use of artillery and airpower and repeated attempts to engage the communists in large-unit battles. However, the NVA and the Viet Cong were able to dictate the pace of attrition to fit their own goals: by continuing to fight a guerrilla war and avoiding large-unit battles, they denied the Americans the chance to fight the kind of war they were best at, and they ensured that attrition would wear the Americans faster than it would wear down the NVA and Viet Cong. Westmoreland repeatedly rebuffed or suppressed attempts by John Paul Vann and Lew Walt to shift to a "pacification" strategy.

Westmoreland said about the US involvement in Vietnam: "It's not that we lost the war militarily. The fact is we as a nation did not make good our commitment to the South Vietnamese."


Westmoreland served as Chief of Staff of the United States Army from 1968 to 1972, then retired from the Army. Many military historians have pointed out that Westmoreland became Chief of Staff at the worst time in history with regard to the Army. Guiding the Army as it transitioned to an all-volunteer force, he issued many directives to try to make Army life better and more palatable for America's youth, i.e. allowing soldiers to wear sideburns and drink beer in the mess hall. However, many hard-liners scorned these as too liberal. Westmoreland ran unsuccessfully for Governor of South Carolina in 1974. He published his autobiography A Soldier Reports the following year. Westmoreland later served on a task force to improve educational standards in the state of South Carolina. He was mentioned in a Time magazine article as a potential candidate for the 1968 Republican nomination.

Westmoreland v. CBS: The Uncounted Enemy

In 1982, Mike Wallace interviewed Westmoreland for the CBS special The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception. The documentary, prepared largely by CBS producer George Crile, alleged that Westmoreland and others had deliberately underestimated Vietcong troop strength during 1967 in order to maintain US troop morale and domestic support for the war. Westmoreland filed a lawsuit against CBS.

In Westmoreland v. CBS, Westmoreland sued Wallace and CBS for libel, and a lengthy legal process began. After the trial was in progress, Westmoreland suddenly settled with CBS for an apology, no more than CBS had originally offered. Some contend that Judge Leval's instructions to the jury over what constituted "actual malice" to prove libel convinced Westmoreland's lawyers that he was certain to lose. Others point out that the settlement occurred after two of Westmoreland's former intelligence officers, Major General Joseph McChristian and Colonel Gains Hawkins, testified to the accuracy of the substantive allegations of the broadcast, which were that Westmoreland ordered changes in intelligence reports on Viet Cong troop strengths for political reasons. Disagreement about the appropriateness of some of the journalistic methods of Mike Wallace in particular persist. Some critics feel his techniques of ambush interviewing, hidden cameras and microphones and one way mirrors were too theatrical, unfair, and at times unethical.

A deposition by McChristian indicates that his organization developed improved intelligence on the number of irregular Viet Cong combatants shortly before he left Vietnam on a regularly scheduled rotation. The numbers troubled Westmoreland, who feared that the press would not understand them. He did not order them changed but instead did not include the information in reporting to Washington, which in his view was a decision that the data were not appropriate to report.

Based on later analysis of the information from all sides, it appears clear that Westmoreland could not sustain a libel suit because CBS's principal allegation was that he had caused intelligence officers to suppress facts. Westmoreland's anger was caused by the implication of the broadcast that his intent was fraudulent and that he ordered others to lie.

During the acrimonious trial, Mike Wallace was hospitalized for depression, and despite the legal conflict separating the two, Westmoreland and his wife sent him flowers. Wallace's memoir is generally sympathetic to Westmoreland, although he makes it clear he disagreed with him on issues surrounding the Vietnam War and the Nixon Administration's policies in Southeast Asia.


In a 1998 interview for George magazine, Westmoreland criticized the battlefield prowess of his opponent North Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap. "Of course, he [Giap] was a formidable adversary," Westmoreland told correspondent W. Thomas Smith, Jr. "Let me also say that Giap was trained in small-unit, guerilla tactics, but he persisted in waging a big-unit war with terrible losses to his own men. By his own admission, by early 1969, I think, he had lost, what, a half million soldiers? He reported this. Now such a disregard for human life may make a formidable adversary, but it does not make a military genius. An American commander losing men like that would hardly have lasted more than a few weeks."

Through the end of his life, he maintained that the United States did not lose the war in Vietnam; he stated instead that "our country did not fulfill its commitment to South Vietnam. By virtue of Vietnam, the U.S. held the line for 10 years and stopped the dominoes from falling."

Among the many honors he received during his service, Westmoreland was awarded four Distinguished Service Medals, the Bronze Star, the Presidential Unit Citation, the Combat Infantryman Badge, the Master Parachutist Badge and numerous foreign decorations.

Despite the controversy of Vietnam and the CBS suit, Westmoreland was nonetheless hailed as a popular and beloved commander by many of those under his command. One of the highlights of his life was leading a large parade in Chicago in 1986 that honored the Vietnam veterans. Many of the men proudly wore badges inscribed "WESTY'S WARRIORS".

Personal life

In 1947, he married Katherine (Kitsy) Stevens Van Deusen. They had three children: two daughters Katherine Westmoreland, and Margaret Westmoreland; and one son named James Ripley Westmoreland. William Westmoreland died on July 18, 2005 at the age of 91 at the Bishop Gadsden retirement home in Charleston, South Carolina.

Westmoreland's brother-in-law, Lt. Col. Frederick Van Deusen, was killed in combat in Vietnam on July 71968, just hours after Westmoreland was sworn in as Army Chief of Staff.

On July 23, 2005, he was buried at the West Point Cemetery, United States Military Academy.

Dates of rank

Awards and decorations

General Westmoreland earned the following U.S. and foreign decorations and awards:

U.S. personal military decorations

U.S. military badges, tabs and patches

Foreign decorations and awards

U.S. military unit awards

Foreign unit awards

Foreign badges, decorations and patches

See also


  • Stanley Karnow, Vietnam: A History (New York, NY, Penguin, 1991)
  • Tom Mascaro, The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception (Chicago, IL, The Museum of Broadcast Communications)
  • W. Thomas Smith Jr., An old soldier sounds off: General Westmoreland, commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam until 1968, talks of war and General Giap (New York, N.Y., George, Nov. 1998)
  • General William C. Westmoreland, A Soldier Reports (Garden City, N.Y., Doubleday, 1976)
  • Mike Wallace with Gary Paul Gates, Between You and Me (N.Y., Hyperion, 2005)

External links


News of his death:

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