Gen. William C. Westmoreland decided Sunday to withdraw his $120-million lawsuit against CBS without going to the jury.
Westmoreland had charged that the network libeled him in a 1982 documentary on the Vietnam War.
The stunning decision to end what had been called the “libel trial of the century” came after 18 weeks of testimony and just days before the complex battle between the 70-year-old general and the network was expected to go to the jury.
After news reports circulated that an agreement had been reached to end the battle without submitting it to the jury, CBS announced that a news conference would be held today in New York to “jointly announce the discontinuance of the Westmoreland libel suit against CBS.”
Westmoreland, perhaps America’s best known field general since World War II, had sued the network over a 1982 documentary entitled, “The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception.”
The 90-minute program contended that for political reasons Westmoreland suppressed evidence of sharply rising enemy force levels in 1967, during several months immediately preceding the enemy’s Tet offensive that became a turning point in the war.
The Washington Post, in today’s editions, quoted sources close to the case as saying that the agreement involves no apology or payment by CBS. These sources said Westmoreland’s chief lawyer, Dan M. Burt, persuaded CBS to agree not to sue Westmoreland for the network’s court costs, estimated at $150,000 to $250,000.
As part of the agreement, lawyers from both sides are expected to release a statement praising both parties in the suit and saying that the case has provided historians with voluminous documents on the crucial period in Vietnam before the Tet offensive of 1968, the Post said.
“Both Gen. Westmoreland and CBS believe that their respective positions have been effectively placed before the public for its consideration and that continuing the legal process at this stage would serve no further purpose,” said the statement, which was drafted Sunday night, one source said.
“CBS respects Gen. Westmoreland’s long and faithful service to his country and never intended to assert and does not believe that Gen. Westmoreland was unpatriotic or disloyal in performing his duties as he saw them,” the statement said.
Cable News Network and the New York Times reported that no money would be paid to Westmoreland by CBS, and there would be no retraction or apology for the 60-minute broadcast.
The trial in U.S. District Court in New York had been scheduled to resume on Tuesday morning, and there had been no hint of a settlement. CBS had planned to call several more witnesses, including correspondent Mike Wallace, before resting its defense.
Attorneys for the network had contended since beginning their presentation of evidence in early January that the charges contained in the broadcast were true, and that the producers of the program had believed they were true when the broadcast was aired three years ago.
The case got under way last October, and Westmoreland, appearing as his own star witness, testified that he had been “ambushed” and “rattlesnaked” in his interview with Wallace.
But sources close to the case were quoted Sunday as saying that the general and his attorneys were advised in recent days to give up their fight.
What had appeared most damaging to Westmoreland’s case in recent days was the testimony of two high-ranking intelligence officers who had been involved in the development of enemy troop strenth estimates in 1967.
Retired Maj. Gen. Joseph A. McChristian testified that in May, 1967, he had taken Westmoreland a cable reporting sharply higher estimates of Viet Cong strength, but that Westmoreland had refused to forward the report to higher headquarters, saying that it would create a “political bombshell” in Washington.
Just before court adjourned last week, retired Army Col. Gains B. Hawkins, who had been Westmoreland’s staff officer charged with keeping account of enemy strenth, testified that he believed enemy troop figures produced by Westmoreland’s command were “crap.”