Conservative supporters of retired Army general William C. Westmoreland yesterday reacted with shock and sorrow to his decision to end his $120 million libel suit against CBS Inc. before it went to the jury and attributed his action to the expense of suing a rich and powerful network.

Several Westmoreland supporters said they had hoped at least for a finding that a 1982 CBS documentary that accused him of misrepresenting estimates of enemy troop strength in Vietnam was false and defamatory.

None of those interviewed said they thought that the jury would have found "malice" -- a determination that CBS had reason to think that information in the documentary was false. Such a finding would have allowed Westmoreland, commander of U.S. ground forces in Vietnam from 1964 to 1968, to collect damages.

"My reaction to the initial news of his seeming capitulation -- the withdrawal of his libel suit against CBS -- was shock and disbelief," said retired Army general Herbert G. Sparrow, who helped raise funds for Westmoreland.

After final arguments and the judge's instructions to the jury, he said, "we expected findings comparable to the Ariel Sharon trial: that the thrust of the 'documentary' was false, that the general had not engaged in a conspiracy to deceive his superiors and that he had indeed been maligned."

Sparrow referred to the finding last month in the former Israeli defense minister's libel suit that Time magazine had defamed him but had not acted out of malice.

Several Westmoreland supporters said they believed that, even if he had lost on truth and defamation, his public image would have suffered less.

"Now the headlines read, 'Westmoreland Hoists the White Flag' and 'Westmoreland in Retreat,' " said retired admiral Thomas Moorer, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "If it had gone to the jury, the perception would have been that the jury pushed him back."

Reed Irvine of Accuracy in Media (AIM), a conservative media watchdog group, agreed, saying:

"It was a very unfortunate move on the part of the general and his counsel to throw in the sponge within sight of the goal line. The only worse outcome would have been a directed verdict by the judge. I would have told him that this hurts his credibility. If the jury went against him, everyone knows a jury can be fickle."

"This is the trend in libel law, for both sides to claim victory," said Michael McDonald of the American Legal Foundation, which has a news-distortion complaint against CBS before the Federal Communications Commission. "Now after $8 million, we're back to square one, where we were two years ago."

Richard Viguerie, the conservative fund-raiser and Republican candidate for lieutenant governor of Virginia, said, "Between this and the Time suit, a lot of national media will be a little more careful and sensitive, and that's positive. When you're an elephant, you have to walk carefully when people's reputations are on the line."

Most supporters interviewed said they assume that Westmoreland settled because he had run out of money. The general's attorney, Dan Burt, estimated Westmoreland's legal costs at about $3.3 million, while estimates of CBS's costs are about $5 million.

"Any trial against a big company will cost millions, and the only way to win is to keep raising money," said retired admiral Arleigh Burke, another former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "That's just the way some things are. What is, is."

Asked at a news conference Monday if the legal costs had caused Westmoreland to drop the case, Burt said that finances "were a factor but not a major factor."

He also said "the strength of one's case plays a role." He emphasized that Westmoreland "wanted an apology . . . his name cleared."