Retired Gen. William Westmoreland, who commanded U.S. forces during the Vietnam War from 1964 to 1968 and advocated a strong military buildup at a time when American casualties were mounting, has died.
Westmoreland died Monday of natural causes at Bishop Gadsden retirement home, where he had lived with his wife, said his son, James Ripley Westmoreland. He was 91.
“I have no apologies, no regrets. I gave my very best efforts,” Westmoreland told The Associated Press in 1985. “I’ve been hung in effigy. I’ve been spat upon. You just have to let those things bounce off.”
'We held the line'
The silver-haired, jut-jawed officer, who rose through the ranks quickly during World War II and later became superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., contended the United States did not lose the conflict in Southeast Asia.
“We held the line. We stopped the falling of the dominoes,” he said in 1985 at the 20th anniversary of the Army’s 173rd Airborne Brigade’s assignment to 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.”
As commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam, Westmoreland oversaw the introduction of ground troops in South Vietnam and a dramatic increase in the number of U.S. troops there. He also sought in vain permission to engage enemy forces in their sanctuaries in Cambodia, Laos and North Vietnam.
American support for the war suffered a tremendous blow near the end of Westmoreland’s tenure when enemy forces attacked several cities and towns throughout South Vietnam in what is known as the Tet Offensive in 1968. Though Westmoreland fought off the attacks, the American public remained stunned that the enemy had gained access to the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, even if only for a few hours.
After the event, President Lyndon Johnson limited further increases in troops; Westmoreland was recalled to Washington to serve as the U.S. Army Chief of Staff after asking for reinforcements in response to the attacks.
Later, after many of the wounds caused by the divisive conflict began to heal, Westmoreland led thousands of his comrades in the November 1982 veterans march in Washington to dedicate the Vietnam War Memorial.
He called it “one of the most emotional and proudest experiences of my life.”
After his four-year tour in Vietnam, Westmoreland was promoted to Army chief of staff from 1968 to 1972. He retired from active duty in 1972 but continued to lecture and participate in veterans’ activities.
“I met him a couple of times,” former South Vietnamese Maj. Gen. Nguyen Huu Hanh, who witnessed the fall of Saigon, said Tuesday. “He was a good man.”
Battle with CBS
A decade after his retirement, Westmoreland fought another battle involving Vietnam.
In 1982, he filed a $120 million lawsuit against CBS over a documentary “The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception,” which implied he had deceived President Johnson and the public about enemy troop strength in Vietnam.
At the time, Westmoreland said the question “is not about whether the war in Vietnam was right or wrong, but whether in our land a television network can rob an honorable man of his reputation.”
After an 18-week trial in New York, the case was settled shortly before it was to go to the jury.
William Childs Westmoreland was born near Spartanburg, S.C., on March 26, 1914, into a banking and textile family.
He attended The Citadel for a year before transferring to West Point. He graduated in 1936 and, during his senior year, held the highest command position in the cadet corps.
Westmoreland saw action in North Africa, Sicily and Europe during World War II. He attained the rank of colonel by the time he was 30.
As commander of the 34th Field Artillery Battalion fighting German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, he earned the loyalty and respect of his troops for joining in the thick of battle rather than remaining behind the lines at a command post.
He was promoted to brigadier general during the Korean War and later served in the Pentagon under Army Chief of Staff Maxwell Taylor. Westmoreland became the superintendent of West Point in 1960 and, by 1964, was a three-star general commanding American troops in Vietnam.
In his autobiography, “A Soldier Reports,” Westmoreland wrote that in Vietnam, while he “tried to avoid any vendetta against the press,” he sometimes resented the time he had to spend correcting “errors, misinterpretations, judgments and falsehoods” contained in news reports.
But he wrote that the press is “such a bulwark of the American system, that it is well to tolerate some mistakes and derelictions to make every effort to assure that total freedom and independence continue to exist.”
In later years, Westmoreland often spoke to Vietnam veterans’ groups, accepting invitations to visit veterans’ groups in all 50 states, his son said.
“That became, in effect, his raison d’etre,” the younger Westmoreland recalled. “He did have a point of view on Vietnam but he did not speak about that. He was not out there trying to justify anything.”
In addition to his son, Westmoreland’s survivors include his wife, Katherine, and two daughters, Katherine and Margaret.