William Charles Westmoreland was born March 26, 1914 just outside of Spartanburg, South Carolina to an upper-middle class family who was involved in banking and the textile business. He gravitated early toward structured, leadership venues, joining the Boy Scouts and ultimately achieving the rank of Eagle Scout. In 1931, Westmoreland entered the Citadel, the military college located in South Carolina, where he attended one year before transferring to West Point. His performance at the academy was exemplary, graduating at the top of his class and earning the Pershing Sword, given to the most outstanding cadet in the class.
Westmoreland was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant and stationed at Fort Sill, then Hawaii and Fort Bragg. He first saw combat during World War II in North Africa with the 34th Field Artillery Battalion, 9th Infantry Division, before joining the fight in Sicily. His unit received a presidential citation for their heroic actions when they came under fire in Tunisia. Westmoreland later led troops during other conflicts in Europe, including Germany, France and Belgium.
During the Korean War, Westmoreland served as a paratrooper commander. After the war, he completed the business management program at Harvard and accepted a position as head of the office of manpower at the Pentagon, and then moved on to serve under Chief of Staff Maxwell Taylor as the secretary to the Army General Staff. Westmoreland spent two years afterwards as commander of the 101st Airborne before being named superintendent of West Point for the next three years.
In 1963, Westmoreland received orders for Vietnam. He served as deputy to Commander General Paul Harksins before becoming head of Military Assistance Command and being promoted to four-star general. Now in charge of U.S. troops in Vietnam, Westmoreland confidently told the American public that the U.S. would win the war. His plan was to increase troops from 20,000 to 500,000, reasoning that more U.S. troops could kill more enemy troops at a rate faster than they could be replaced, leading to success through attrition. However, the increase in troops did not lead to success in Vietnam, and he rapidly lost support.
At one point, he was called to testify before Congress about the lack of progress in the war, where he was expected to defend the war, but instead resorted to calling those who opposed the war “unpatriotic.” The Viet Cong made a surprising gain when they overtook several cities by attacking during Tet, the lunar New Year’s celebration. President Lyndon B. Johnson limited Westmoreland’s discretion for decision-making, although this did not stop Westmoreland from pushing for even more troops. He was eventually pulled back to the U.S and reassigned as the Army’s Chief of Staff.
Richard M. Nixon was now President of the U.S., and he held Westmoreland at arm’s length, rarely consulting him about war matters. Though the territory was eventually regained, the tremendous cost of soldiers’ lives led to heightened discontent in America. Westmoreland retired in 1972, turning to public speaking and maintaining that the U.S. did not lost the war because they dropped out before it was over.
Westmoreland controversy did not end there, however. In 1982, CBS aired a documentary entitled The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception, charging that General Westmoreland altered information and withheld intelligence during the Vietnam War in an effort to mislead the American public into believing they were winning the war. Westmoreland in turn sued the network for $120 million, with conflicting reports later that he either settled out of court or withdrew the case. CBS did, however, admit that there had been errors in the documentary.
General Westmoreland died when he was 91 years old on July 18, 2005 in a retirement home in Charleston, South Carolina. He left behind a wife and three children, and a host of dedicated soldiers in spite of the controversies that spotted his military career. He is buried at the West Point Cemetery. Below, I have share some notable quotes from General Westmoreland.
#7 “we will prevail … over the Communist aggressor.”
During his testimony before Congress about the Vietnam War, Westmoreland was adamant the U.S. would win the war.
#6 “In evaluating the enemy strategy, it is evident to me that he believes our Achilles heel is our resolve. . . . Your continued strong support is vital to the success of our mission. . . .”
Again, during his testimony before Congress, Westmoreland made a strong case for unity and support of military efforts in Vietnam.
#5 “We can’t win unless we expand the war”
Westmoreland believed that war efforts in Vietnam needed to expand into Cambodia and Laos. Despite his best arguments, President Johnson refused, sending Westmoreland back to the U.S. instead.
#4 “The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. . . . We value life and human dignity
A documentary about the Vietnam War called “Hearts and Minds” aired in 1974, and in it, Westmoreland expressed his sweeping opinion about Asia’s lack of value of human life.
#3 “Vietnam was the first war ever fought without any restriction. Without censorship, things can get awfully confused in the public mind.”
Westmoreland was not a fan of the media, and largely blamed them for the public’s opposition to the war. He felt that, without interference from the media, American support would not have dwindled and American troops would not have suffered needlessly upon returning home.
#2 “The last man in the world who should have been criticized was the American soldier. They should have criticized me.”
General Westmoreland expressed his thoughts about the harassment soldiers faced at home. He believed U.S. troops were unfairly targeted as a result of the discontent of the American public over the way the war was fought. He worked hard to curb the unrest.
#1 “This was a type of war that we’d had no experience with before. Some of our policies were kind of trial and error in character.”
It is well-documented that Viet Cong war tactics were underestimated, for the U.S. was unprepared for the guerilla warfare, the unfamiliar terrain, and the commitment of the enemy forces.
Despite the controversies that arose surrounding his performance during the Vietnam War, General Westmoreland is remembered by many as an outstanding serviceman and a strong advocate for Vietnam veterans.
I hope that you enjoyed this article. If you have any stories about General Westmoreland or would like to add a memorable quote of your own, please share in the comments section.
Former Army Major (resigned)
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