General William Westmoreland

Commander of the US forces in Vietnam who insisted the war was never lost
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The Independent Online

In 1965 Time magazine named William Westmoreland, then commander of US forces in Vietnam and one of America's most celebrated generals, as its Man of the Year. But the end of 1968 he was back in Washington, discredited emblem of a misconceived war which, it was then already evident, could never be won by military means alone.

Along with the then Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, Westmoreland personified the US failure in Vietnam. With a self-confidence that verged on self-delusion, with his embrace of an all-annihilating "war of attrition", and his refusal to admit error, he embodied everything the public came to dislike about the US military establishment in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Today America venerates its soldiers. That was most definitely not the case as Vietnam wound down to its ignominious close in 1975. Not until the triumph of the 1991 Gulf War did the military's reputation recover.

When Westmoreland arrived in Vietnam in early 1964, US forces totalled some 20,000, officially as "advisers". When he left four years later, after the Tet Offensive by the North Vietnamese and Vietcong, over 500,000 American troops were deployed there. In military terms, the offensive failed, resulting in massive losses for the enemy. But Tet 1968 fatally undermined public opinion at home. In the eyes of many in the US, Time's Man of the Year had become a reckless warmonger. For students and leftists, he was little better than a war criminal.

Westmoreland's response, characteristically, was not to change course, but to talk of "light at the end of the tunnel". He asked President Lyndon Johnson for a further 200,000 troops - but this time Johnson said no. Two decades later, Vo Nguyen Giap, the North Vietnam commander, praised his direct adversary as a "cultivated soldier . . . who had read many military texts". But, Giap added, after Tet Westmoreland "could have put in 300,000, even 400,000 more men. It would have made no difference."

The remark sums up the failure of Westmoreland's "war of attrition", based on the theory that the key to winning in Vietnam was to kill enemy troops faster than they could be replaced. The strategy drew Westmoreland into taking on major Communist units in the field, diverting attention from the crucial task of securing the villages - without whose loyalty the concept of "attrition" was meaningless.

But Westmoreland's military habits were forged on the set-piece battlefields of Europe, North Africa and Korea. He simply could not grasp the subtler demands of a counter-insurgency struggle. Instead, he saw himself as a victim of circumstance, fated to be commander in "the most unpopular war this country ever fought". But the historian Arthur Schlesinger, for one, viewed him very differently, as "possibly our most disastrous general since Custer". And therein lay the tragedy of the man. Just as McNamara the politician and government official, so Westmoreland the soldier epitomised "the best and the brightest" who led America into the Vietnam swamp.

He came from South Carolina, a state with an especially rich military tradition. He was tall and physically imposing, but possessed the courteous ways for which the old south is famous. After a year at the Citadel military college in Charleston, he went to West Point, where he graduated first in his class in 1936 and was awarded the Pershing Sword, given to the most able cadet.

In the Second World War, the early promise was quickly justified, as his unit won a presidential citation for its heroism under fire in Tunisia. He served with distinction in the European campaign to destroy Nazi Germany, and then in the Korean War, before returning to staff jobs at the Pentagon. Between 1960 and 1963 he held the prestigious job of superintendent at his Alma Mater West Point.

Westmoreland had been the youngest major-general in the army, before arriving in Saigon in 1964 as a lieutenant-general and deputy to General Paul Harkins. A few months later he became overall commander, a promotion that signalled Johnson's intention to escalate the war. The President did just that - but for Westmoreland it was never quite enough. Even as he was leaving Vietnam, he was urging Johnson to expand the war proper into Laos and Cambodia. By that time, however, even hawks like McNamara were gnawed by doubt. In his 1995 memoir In Retrospect the Defense Secretary wrote of how he warned LBJ that "Westy's approach could lead to a major national disaster".

In mid-1968, Westmoreland was promoted to army chief of staff. In Vietnam he was succeeded by his old 1936 West Point classmate General Creighton Adams, who laid the emphasis on securing the towns and villages, and reducing large scale engagements. By then however, the war was a lost cause. So too in effect was Westmoreland's career.

The Nixon administration which took power in 1969 ignored his advice on Vietnam, and conspicuously failed to make him chairman of the joint chiefs of staff in 1972. Westmoreland retired, and returned home to South Carolina, where he was defeated in a bid for the Republican nomination for Governor in 1974. Politics were not for him. "I was used to a structured organisation," he would complain, "and this civilian process is just so doggone nebulous."

Two years later, he produced his own memoir, A Soldier Reports, in which he defended his strategy. Until the end of his life, he insisted that the US Army did not lose the Vietnam War. He blamed the failure on the inadequacy of the South Vietnamese army, on President Johnson's refusal to send even more troops and geographically to expand the war, and on the fickleness of US public opinion.

Meanwhile the war's residue of bitterness lived on. In 1982, Westmoreland brought a $120m libel suit against CBS television, after a documentary entitled The Uncounted Enemy: a Vietnam deception, which alleged that he and his fellow commanders had deliberately underestimated Vietcong troop strength, in order to boost morale and public support for the war. In an internal report, CBS admitted "shoddy journalistic practices", but after 18 weeks of testimony in a Manhattan federal court Westmoreland settled for an apology. It was a victory as empty as the one he claimed in Vietnam.

Rupert Cornwell