July 19, 2005
General Westmoreland Dies at 91; Led U.S. in VietnamBy ERIC PACE
Gen. William C. Westmoreland, who commanded the United States forces in Vietnam from 1964 to 1968, overseeing the vast troop buildup and the height of the fighting, died last night in a retirement home in Charleston, S.C., his son, James Ripley Westmoreland, announced. The general was 91.
Westy, as he became known while a West Point cadet, was driving and combative - in World War II, leading a fast-moving artillery battalion; in Vietnam, directing "search and destroy" missions meant to decimate the enemy; in retirement, suing CBS for a television documentary that he said had defamed him.
The libel suit, which he brought to trial in 1984 but dropped early in 1985, revived long-standing controversy about him. Over the years, he was widely criticized, inside and outside the armed forces, for his prime role in the conduct of the Vietnam War. One of his deputies in Vietnam, Gen. Bruce Palmer Jr., who rose to be vice chief of staff of the Army, later called the war "the first clear failure" in American military history.
But in his memoirs, General Westmoreland blamed the outcome on the South Vietnamese Army and on President Johnson's refusal to broaden the war into Laos, Cambodia and North Vietnam. The general contended that in Vietnam the American forces' record of "achievements was remarkable: the mammoth logistical buildup, various tactical expedients and innovations, the advisory effort, civic action programs."
"But perhaps most impressive of all," he wrote, was "the accomplishment for the first time in military history of a true air mobility on the battlefield."
Over the years, other highly placed officers and officials praised the logistical effort but argued that under General Westmoreland's command, war-of-attrition tactics failed, and that emphasis on military operations carried out by American forces damaged the South Vietnamese Army psychologically.
A military historian and former Army major, Andrew F. Krepinevich, argued that the general had suffered from self-delusion in Vietnam. In a 1986 book, "The Army and Vietnam" (Johns Hopkins), the major said, "In focusing on the attrition of enemy forces rather than on defeating the enemy through denial of his access to the population," General Westmoreland's command "missed whatever opportunity it had to deal the insurgents a crippling blow."
In 1990, the author Jessica Mitford asked the general at a newspaper industry convention in Washington whether he had suffered from "massive self-delusion." Chin jutting, he dismissed her question as nonsense.
Critics also said that the priority given to fighting major Communist units in the field impeded efforts to regain control of villages, and that the mobility gained by the lavish use of aircraft was misused. Saigon fell to the Communists in 1975, seven years after General Westmoreland was replaced as commander and two years after the last American combat troops were withdrawn.
Over the years, the general also drew praise from some quarters. "Westy possessed determination and patriotism," wrote Robert S. McNamara, secretary of defense under John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, in his 1995 book "In Retrospect" (Times Books), which is critical of the United States' - and Mr. McNamara's - involvement in Vietnam.
But Mr. McNamara, who was defense secretary from 1961 to 1968, also recalled that he sent a memo to President Johnson in May 1967 opposing what he called, in the book, "still another request from General Westmoreland to escalate" American military involvement in Indochina, by means of "200,000 more troops along with a geographic expansion of the war."
"I bluntly told President Johnson that 'the war in Vietnam is acquiring a momentum of its own that must be stopped' and that Westy's approach 'could lead to a major national disaster,' "' Mr. McNamara wrote. It was in the following year that the general was replaced as commander in Vietnam.
By the time Saigon fell, he was in retirement in his native South Carolina, having served as chief of staff from 1968 to 1972. In that assignment he won praise for his handling of complex administrative problems. But he was given little say in the Vietnam War effort, and his hopes for promotion to chairman of the Joint Chiefs went unfulfilled.
In 1974, the general emerged from retirement briefly to campaign unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination for Governor of South Carolina. And, through the decades, he defended his Vietnam record in occasional lectures and interviews.
In an interview in 1991, he said that in the Vietnam war, "because President Johnson was afraid of bringing in China and starting a world war, we weren't allowed to enlarge the battlefield." That left the North Vietnamese with sanctuaries, in North Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, from which they could send troops and supplies into South Vietnam.
In later years, he often spoke to veterans' groups, his son said, getting to all 50 states. "That became, in effect, his raison d'être," Mr. Westmoreland said in a comment quoted by The Associated Press. "He did have a point of view on Vietnam, but he did not speak about that. He was not trying to justify anything."
The general also defended his record in his memoirs as well as in the libel suit, for $120 million, over the CBS documentary, which he said was inaccurate and defamatory.
The program, "The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception," said, as Mr. McNamara put it in his book, "that Westy ordered his intelligence officers knowingly to underestimate enemy strength in order to bolster his claims of military progress." But Mr. McNamara contended in the book, "The CBS network mistakenly portrayed Westy as having lied to the president and me."
A Bright Early Career
General Westmoreland took command in Saigon after a brilliant career in Army positions that did not demand the broad-ranging strategic and tactical thinking he was called upon for in Vietnam.
In his first taste of battle, in February 1943, he bore out the promise that his superiors had seen in him at West Point. He rushed his unit's trucks and 155-millimeter howitzers for four days across North Africa to help block a German onslaught in Tunisia. The battalion won a Presidential Unit Citation for "the heroism with which the volume of fire was maintained despite terrible enemy fire."
Other milestones in the general's career ranged from parachute training and command of an airborne regimental combat team in the Korean War, to becoming for a time the youngest major general in the Army, to holding the prestigious post of Superintendent at West Point. Over the years, he also spent much time in staff posts, as distinct from command positions.
Buoyed by his earlier successes, he had a confident, can-do attitude when he came to Vietnam in January 1964. He began with the rank of lieutenant general and the job of deputy to Gen. Paul D. Harkins, whom he succeeded as commander later in the year, gaining promotion to full, four-star general.
"Replacing General Harkins with Westy," Mr. McNamara wrote in "In Retrospect," helped to signal President Johnson's "determination to increase the effectiveness of U.S. policy and operations in Indochina."
General Westmoreland wrote in his memoirs, "A Soldier Reports," that he found himself beset by many problems in Vietnam. But he said he believed nonetheless that "success eventually would be ours," that the problems "were not to be, as Napoleon put it, instruments of my army's downfall."
A strapping six-footer with bushy eyebrows and a controlled, courteous manner, General Westmoreland "was an impressive figure," wrote General Palmer, who served under him in Vietnam and then in the Pentagon, in his 1984 book "The 25-Year War: America's Military Role in Vietnam."
As the United States' military commander in Vietnam, General Westmoreland made frequent field trips away from his Saigon headquarters, where he worked in crisp, flawlessly pressed combat fatigues. His title in those days was commander of the United States Military Assistance Command in Vietnam, which had been set up to aid the Saigon Government in confronting Communists.
At the beginning of 1964, there were only 15,000 American military advisers in South Vietnam. Political instability in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), the general wrote in his memoirs, made escalation vital.
The 'Pandora's Box'
The overthrow and killing of President Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam in a coup by officers in November 1963, the general wrote, "opened a Pandora's box of political turmoil seriously deterring effective prosecution of the war and leading directly to the necessity of introducing American troops" to fight "if South Vietnam was not to fall."
After the announcement that American destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin were attacked by North Vietnamese gunboats in August 1964, United States forces began taking an active part in the war. The American buildup followed, with the number of ground troops climbing to a high of more than 500,000 before General Westmoreland left Saigon.
Mr. McNamara recalled in "In Retrospect" that General Westmoreland repeatedly favored increases in the ground troops. But by early 1967, Mr. McNamara wrote, the United States Central Intelligence Agency "felt that the North Vietnamese had much greater staying power than the administration (and Westy) believed," and "it turned out the C.I.A. was correct."
General Westmoreland contended in his memoirs that the United States could have won the war. He said the fighting was not "brought to a favorable end" because President Johnson did not permit effective anti-Communist ground operations in Laos, Cambodia and North Vietnam.
A member of the War College staff, Col. Harry G. Summers Jr., wrote in the early 1980's that "much of the blame for our failure" had been placed on General Westmoreland's shoulders. But Colonel Summers, General Palmer and other critics of the Vietnam War effort said that blaming General Westmoreland so heavily was unfair.
Over the years, there have been complaints that the American effort in Vietnam was impeded by flaws in the chain of command between Washington and Saigon. General Westmoreland complained in his memoirs about what he called "centralization of authority in Washington and the preoccupation with minutiae at the Washington level."
Nevertheless, much criticism has been focused on the strategy of attrition, which General Westmoreland was instrumental in conceiving as well as directing. That strategy was meant to weaken the Communist forces by killing off their troops more swiftly than replacements for those casualties could be provided. In pursuing that goal, the general chose to rely mainly on American rather than Vietnamese soldiers.
Accordingly, he oversaw the buildup of American forces in Vietnam, and he sent American combat troops into the field, in contingents of 750 or more, to "take the war to the enemy," as he put it.
Critics of such search-and-destroy tactic have emphasized that it failed to impose attrition on the enemy: General Westmoreland's men killed Communist soldiers at a lower rate than North Vietnamese reinforcements entered South Vietnam.
In addition, some United States officers have contended that the development of "air mobility" in South Vietnam, which General Westmoreland cited as one of the United States' military achievements there, was less valuable than it seemed.
First, they have argued, "air mobility," mainly the very heavy use of helicopters, led commanders to ignore some significant enemy positions on the ground because the commanders could simply fly their men over those areas.
Second, those critics have said, the United States had total air superiority in South Vietnam and the enemy possessed only light anti- aircraft weapons - conditions, they argue, that are not likely to prevail in the future.
When General Westmoreland was promoted to Army chief of staff, he was succeeded in the Vietnam command by Gen. Creighton W. Abrams, a fellow member of the West Point class of 1936. General Abrams departed from General Westmoreland's way of operating. He emphasized operations by 150 or fewer soldiers. He also deployed more forces around cities and in other populous areas.
Back in Washington as the Army chief, General Westmoreland oversaw efforts to adjust the Army to the post-Vietnam period. General Palmer wrote in his book that the Army benefited greatly from General Westmoreland's leadership in the Pentagon, but that the general "was deeply hurt by the slights accorded him" by Nixon administration officials, "who rarely consulted him on Vietnam affairs."
When General Westmoreland was not chosen as chairman of the Joint Chiefs in mid-1972, he retired and moved to Charleston.
When he made his foray into South Carolina politics in 1974, running for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, he was defeated by State Sen. James B. Edwards, a conservative veteran of many years of Republican politics.
After the campaign, the general told supporters: "I was an inept candidate. I'm used to a structured organization, and this civilian process is so doggone nebulous."
An Inconclusive Libel Suit
In 1982, he filed the $120-million suit against CBS over "The Uncounted Enemy" documentary. The suit came to trial in 1984 in Federal District Court in Manhattan. Eighteen weeks of testimony ensued, in which some senior American officers who had served under General Westmoreland in Vietnam contended that he had been influenced by political rather than purely military concerns in reports about enemy strength that were sent to Washington.
When he dropped the suit early in 1985, he said he had come to believe that the trial, involving complex legal issues, was "a no-win situation" for him.
In a statement at the time, CBS declared that it did not believe "that General Westmoreland was unpatriotic or disloyal in performing his duties as he saw them." The general said that he interpreted that statement as a victory and that it constituted an apology for what the program had charged. But CBS called that interpretation invalid and continued to contend that its documentary was accurate.
In a striking coincidence, it was also in 1982 that the Vietnam Memorial was dedicated on the Mall in Washington. It was one of the first events at which thousands of Vietnam veterans felt they could openly claim a salute from the American people, and though the crowds were smaller than organizers had hoped, General Westmoreland, characteristically, was there.
General Westmoreland married Katherine Van Deusen, a career Army officer's daughter, in 1947, when he was a colonel, and she survives him, together with their son and two daughters, Katherine Stevens Westmoreland and Margaret Childs Westmoreland.