By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 19, 2005
William C. Westmoreland, 91, the controversial four-star general who confidently predicted victory, leading the American military buildup in Vietnam until the 1968 Tet Offensive shattered public confidence, died July 18 at a retirement home in Charleston, S.C., his son said. The cause of death was not immediately available.
Westmoreland commanded U.S. troops in South Vietnam as the U.S. military presence grew from about 20,000 advisers in early 1964 to 500,000 troops in 1968. Facing a confounding enemy, a fearful public turning rapidly hostile and an undependable ally in the South Vietnamese government, Westmoreland came to personify the military establishment against which a generation rebelled.
He was called a war criminal, was burned in effigy on campuses, and historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. called Westmoreland possibly "our most disastrous general since Custer."
In an interview in 1982, Westmoreland said: "It was my fate to serve for over four years as senior American commander in the most unpopular war this country ever fought." The American military never lost the Vietnam War, he insisted.
"We won the war after we left, in effect," he told the New York Times in 1991. "One of our great strategic aims was to stop the Communist advance in Southeast Asia, and when you look at Southeast Asia today, the Communists have made no gains. Today, Vietnam is a basket case run by a bunch of old men and is a threat to no one but itself."
Westmoreland's military strategy was to conduct a war of attrition, trying to kill enemy forces faster than they could be replaced. American soldiers, in units no smaller than 750 men, were sent on "search and destroy" missions to inflict the heaviest possible losses on the biggest units of North Vietnamese troops. Because there were no front lines, Westmoreland and his officers measured success by counting the number of enemy troops killed. But the Army's "body count" reports became widely disbelieved.
Worse, his optimistic assessments of how the war was going ran up against increasing numbers of American dead.
He later said he was prevented from waging a full-out war by rear-echelon second-guessers and by war protesters on campuses who took to the streets. President Lyndon B. Johnson, worried that the Chinese would join the fray and turn the conflict into a full-scale world war, refused Westmoreland's appeals to enlarge the battlefield. As head of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, he did not control the bombing raids against North Vietnam or the conduct of the Army of the Republic of South Vietnam.
Coming home at Johnson's request to defend the Vietnam policy in 1967, he made the mistake of calling the critics "unpatriotic." Antiwar congressmen loudly objected, and Westmoreland, chastened, went before a joint session of Congress, gave U.S. fighting men a stirring tribute and ended by snapping no fewer than five salutes at the lawmakers, bringing down the house.
He was widely quoted saying, "We have reached an important point, when the end begins to come into view," and in a televised news conference in late 1967, repeating the words of others about a "light at the end of the tunnel" to describe improved U.S. fortunes. Ten weeks later came the Tet Offensive.
During the lunar new year celebration of Tet, Vietcong and North Vietnamese troops surprised U.S. and South Vietnamese troops with a massive attack, initially occupying parts of virtually every city in South Vietnam. They soon were beaten back and suffered extremely heavy losses. But it was a major turning point in Americans' perception of the war. Westmoreland asked for 200,000 more soldiers, which would have required calling up reservists. Johnson delayed and then called him back to Washington in July, appointing him chief of staff of the Army. His four years in-country were over.
"He was a cultivated soldier who had read many military texts," North Vietnamese General Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap told historian Stanley Karnow in 1990. "Yet he committed an error following the Tet Offensive, when he requested another 206,000 troops. He could have put in 300,000, even 400,000 more men. It would have made no difference."
Most Americans know him from those four years, but he was a celebrated soldier before he set foot in Vietnam.
He was born in Spartanburg, S.C., attended the Citadel military academy in Charleston and was appointed to West Point. By graduation in 1936, he became first captain -- the top position -- and received the Pershing Sword, given each year to the most militarily proficient cadet, along with a handshake from the 75-year-old general of the armies himself.
The young Westmoreland entered the field artillery, and during World War II he commanded a battalion in North Africa and Sicily before landing at Utah Beach on June 10, 1944. He fought through France, Belgium and Germany. In March 1945, he and members of his 9th Armored Division captured and held the bridge at Remagen, the last bridge standing on the Rhine River. Westmoreland and his men defended it for two weeks, despite continuous bombardment.
This daring feat allowed time for construction of three Allied bridges across the Rhine. Military historians have cited the taking of the bridge at Remagen as one of the most decisive actions in hastening the end of the war in Europe.
During the Korean War, he commanded paratroopers. He later attended the management program at Harvard Business School and then headed the Pentagon's manpower office. He also was secretary to the general staff under Chief of Staff Maxwell Taylor, which put him in touch with many leading national politicians. He was promoted to major general at 42, the youngest major general in the Army's history at the time. He became superintendent of West Point in 1960.
Westmoreland was sent to Vietnam in late 1963 and began urging Johnson to expand the military commitment there. In 1965, Time magazine named him its Man of the Year.
He retired from the military in 1972 and became a much-in-demand public speaker, attracting protesters as well as supporters.
In 1982, enraged by a CBS news documentary "The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception," he filed a $120 million libel lawsuit. The 90-minute program charged that Westmoreland directed a "conspiracy" to "suppress and alter critical intelligence on the enemy" by understating enemy strength in 1967 and 1968 in order to deceive Americans into believing the war was being won.
The highly publicized lawsuit was funded by one of the country's richest men and financier of right-wing causes, Richard Mellon Scaife. But after four months, it was settled out of court, and CBS acknowledged that the documentary had been seriously flawed. Much like in Vietnam, Westmoreland withdrew and declared victory.
He ran unsuccessfully in 1974 for the Republican nomination for governor of South Carolina.
Survivors include his wife of 58 years, Katherine Stevens Van Deusen Westmoreland of Charleston; three children; and six grandchildren.