The highest profile American general of the Vietnam War, William Westmoreland oversaw the U.S. troop build up and was a key architect of the military strategy. After successfully turning the tide against the North Vietnamese during 1965 he was named Time Man of the Year, but as the conflict dragged on it became increasingly unpopular. For some Westmoreland was irrevocably tainted by the war, so much so that in 1985 he told the Associated Press "I have no apologies, no regrets. I gave my very best efforts. I’ve been hung in effigy. I’ve been spat upon. You just have to let those things bounce off."
Westmoreland graduated from West Point in 1936, receiving the Pershing Sword for military proficiency, and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Field Artillery. He joined the 9th Infantry Division in 1941 and saw action during WWII in North Africa and Sicily as Battalion commander of the unit’s 34th Field Artillery. After further exploits in France and Germany, Westmoreland returned to the U.S. to complete his airborne training at Fort Benning before serving as the 82nd Airborne Division’s Chief of Staff from 1947 to 1950.Korean War
In 1952 he lead the 187th Airborne Regimental Combat Team in three campaigns across the Korean peninsula and was decorated for his effective leadership. After spending three years as Secretary of the Army General Staff he was made Superintendent of West Point in 1960. Three years later he was promoted to Lieutenant General and assumed command of the XVIII Airborne Corps, controlling the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions.Vietnam War
In January 1964 Westmoreland was named Deputy Commander of Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV
). Six months later, following the departure of General Harkins, he became Acting Commander and on 1st August 1964 he was promoted to General and Commander of MACV.
Following a series of heavy ARVN
defeats in May and June 1965, Westmoreland believed the Viet Cong
were moving into the third and final phase of the insurgency - the fielding of large conventional style units. Consequently, rather pursuing a counterinsurgency approach based on population security he designed a strategy of attrition, the objective of which was to reach the cross over point, when the enemy’s loses would exceed his ability to replace them through either infiltration from the north or recruitment in the south. To this end, the U.S. military would use its high-tech mobility and superior firepower to search for and destroy the Communist's main force units, whilst the RVNAF
would focus on protecting the population from guerrilla attacks.1
These tactics produced an impressive victory in the Ia Drang valley in November 1965, however the enemy quickly learned to avoid such large battles. Instead, North Vietnamese and VC main force units would draw U.S. forces into remote areas to allow the insurgents continued access to the densely populated coastal plains.
Despite the difficulty in locating and forcing the Communist's main units to battle and the RVNAF's failure to protect the population, Westmoreland maintained that the enemy body count sufficiently validated his attrition strategy.2
However, in March 1968, in the wake of the Communist’s Tet Offensive
and his subsequent request for an additional 206,000 personnel, he was replaced as MACV Commander by Creighton Abrams
Promoted to Chief of Staff of the Army, he supervised its transition to an all-volunteer force and its disengagement from the war as part of President Nixon’s Vietnamization
After retiring from active service in July 1972 Westmoreland unsuccessfully ran for Governor of South Carolina before publishing his autobiography, A Soldier Reports
, in 1976. In 1982 he fought a libel action against CBS for a documentary they aired claiming that he had deliberately misled the Pentagon and the public about the true strength of the Communist forces in South Vietnam. However, he withdrew from the case after the television network stated that it did not mean to impugn his honor.
General Westmoreland was buried at West Point Cemetery on 23rd July 2005.
1. Insurgencies, such as the Viet Cong, use the population as a source of recruits, food, taxes and intelligence on enemy movements etc. Counterinsurgency theory maintains that victory can only achieved by denying the enemy access to the people through intensive ambushing and patrolling around populated areas. Eventually, the insurgents will be forced to come out and fight to maintain access to the population and at that point the enemy's main forces can be defeated. See Krepinevich, The Army and Vietnam, pp 171 and 221-222.
2. As the principle criteria for measuring success in Vietnam, there was a strong incentive for commanders to inflate body counts. Focusing on the body count incentivized officers to bend the rules of engagement in favor of killing potential "insurgents", although in many instances they might have been innocent civilians. See Krepinevich, The Army and Vietnam, pp 202