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A Commander Caught in the Mire of Vietnam

Times Staff Writer

Gen. William C. Westmoreland, the World War II hero who was later vilified for his leadership of the United States’ failed war in Vietnam, died Monday night in Charleston, S.C. He was 91.

Westmoreland died of natural causes at Bishop Gadsden retirement home, his son, James Ripley Westmoreland, told Associated Press.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Jul. 20, 2005 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday July 20, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Westmoreland obituary -- The obituary of Gen. William Westmoreland in Tuesday’s Section A failed to include the name of a second surviving daughter, Margaret Childs Westmoreland.

Jut-jawed and ramrod straight, strong-willed but soft-spoken, the spit-and-polish Westmoreland projected the quintessential image of an American military leader. Although some critics would later call him a warmonger and even a war criminal, his rise through the Army hierarchy was the stuff of which legends are made.

He was chief of his fellow cadets at West Point; the decorated leader of a unit that helped turn back German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel in North Africa; an artillery officer in the European campaign that forced Hitler to his knees; a commander of the heralded 101st Airborne Division; superintendent of West Point; and, finally, the Army’s chief of staff.

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But his battlefield credentials, though noteworthy, never quite matched those of his heroes -- men like the arrogant but brilliant Gen. Douglas MacArthur and the dogged but self-effacing Gen. Omar N. Bradley.

Westmoreland participated in the Normandy invasion -- the Allies’ grandest moment of World War II -- but he didn’t land until four days after D-day.

He went on to head the 101st, but never made a combat jump.

He led an infantry unit in Korea, but not until most of the fighting was over and peace talks had begun.

And his ultimate field command -- leader of the U.S. forces in Vietnam from 1964 to 1968 -- will forever be marked by disputed claims, controversial tactics and repeated military setbacks, not to mention the more than 46,000 Americans killed in action and the eventual loss of the war.

There were 16,000 U.S. personnel in Vietnam when Westmoreland arrived, and he kept asking for more. The number climbed to 27,000 by February 1965 and to 300,000 by mid-1966. The total would top half a million by 1967.

To many Americans, Westmoreland was a military leader whose ability to win had been crippled by hesitant, uncertain politicians. Veterans groups applauded his speeches and hailed him as their champion.

But to far more of his countrymen, Westmoreland was a man who was unable to understand the situation in Vietnam and led the U.S. forces to disaster. Student audiences called him “America’s Eichmann” and stoned his bus.

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His lawsuit over a CBS documentary that charged he had conspired to cover up his failures in Vietnam ended, at best, in a draw.

“He was a very decent man who got into a very difficult war and didn’t understand it,” David Halberstam, author of “The Best and the Brightest,” an account of the missteps in Vietnam, said several years ago. “I regard him as a tragic figure, a man you just want to look away from.”

*

Born in South Carolina on March 26, 1914, “Westy” came by his military ambitions so early and honestly that one of his biographers, Ernest P. Furgurson, dubbed him “the inevitable general.”

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Westmoreland’s father, a prosperous mill and banking executive, had attended the Citadel, South Carolina’s military college. His mother’s father was a graduate of the Virginia Military Institute. Westmoreland’s parents dressed their young son in soldier suits, and he was proud to wear them.

Although reserved and somewhat distant in high school, his good looks, polite manners and meticulous dress helped him get elected class president, and his grades -- above average but not spectacular -- were good enough to get him into the Citadel.

Westmoreland’s composure and dignity during the infamous hazing inflicted by Citadel upperclassmen marked him as a comer, and he recognized early on the importance of having friends in the right places.

Family connections got him an interview with then-South Carolina Sen. James F. Byrnes. When Byrnes’ first choices failed to make the cut, Westmoreland won the Democratic senator’s appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

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Westmoreland liked West Point, and West Point liked him.

The strapping young man’s dedication, hard work and professionalism won him the admiration of his peers and the respect of the academy’s brass. Although his grades were ordinary, his quiet leadership led to his being named first captain of the cadets, the highest rank and honor the academy can bestow on a student.

The Army Westmoreland joined after graduation in 1936 was underfinanced, under-equipped and undermanned. With only 168,000 officers and enlisted men, it ranked 18th in the world in size, behind Portugal and only one place ahead of Bulgaria.

At his first posting, Ft. Sill, Okla., his company commander gave him a lousy proficiency rating, but Westmoreland soon caught the appreciative eye of Gen. Arch Arnold, the base commander. Arnold liked the way Westmoreland sat a horse, and saw to it that the personable second lieutenant was included in the general’s cherished fox hunts.

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Transferred two years later to Schofield Barracks in Hawaii -- the setting for James Jones’ biting novel and subsequent movie, “From Here to Eternity” -- Westmoreland was promoted to first lieutenant in 1939 and captain in 1940. He was transferred again, to Ft. Bragg, N.C., a few months before the Japanese attacked Schofield and Pearl Harbor.

But if Westmoreland had missed the action in Hawaii, he found himself well positioned as World War II began heating up. Ft. Bragg was an important training center, and Westmoreland, promoted swiftly to major and then lieutenant colonel, was given command of an artillery battalion that landed in North Africa in December 1942.

A few days later, Rommel’s vaunted Afrika Corps shattered the U.S. 1st Armored Division at the Kasserine Pass, one of the most humiliating Allied defeats of the war.

The men of Westmoreland’s 34th Artillery Battalion were called in to help turn the tide, and they proved up to the task. The Germans were beaten back in brutal fighting, and the 34th won a presidential unit citation.

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Six months later, Westmoreland and his men distinguished themselves again during the invasion of Sicily. Top Army officers -- among them James Gavin, Matthew Ridgeway and Maxwell Taylor -- took notice, and Westmoreland was awarded the Legion of Merit for “supreme courage and devotion to duty.”

Although he missed D-day, June 6, 1944, Westmoreland, by then a full colonel, joined the invasion of Normandy four days later, overseeing extensive combat operations across France. During the final Allied push into Germany, Westmoreland, now chief of staff of the 9th Division, helped turn back the Wehrmacht’s desperate attempts to retake the Rhine River bridge at Remagen, winning a Bronze Star. A few weeks later, Germany surrendered.

After duty with occupation forces in postwar West Germany, Westmoreland was given command of an 82nd Airborne Division regiment at Ft. Bragg. After his initiation -- training jumps with teenage recruits -- Westmoreland was welcomed as a member of the Army’s “Airborne Mafia,” an elite group of officers on a fast track to the top.

On May 3, 1947, Westmoreland married Katherine Van Deusen, 13 years his junior, whom he had first met when he was an officer with her father at Ft. Sill. Over the years, she was to prove the ideal wife of a career officer -- charming, loyal and an outgoing hostess for a sometimes taciturn host.

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Named an instructor at the Army Command General Staff School and the Army War College, Westy worried that he was missing the action when war broke out in Korea in 1950. By the time he got there as commander of the 187th Regimental Combat Team in 1952, the war was winding down.

But none of that seemed to slow Westmoreland’s advance. He was promoted to brigadier general in 1953 and was transferred to the Pentagon, where he was made the top assistant to Gen. Taylor, by then the Army’s chief of staff. Westmoreland’s appearances on Capitol Hill won him important allies in two congressmen -- Gerald R. Ford, a Republican, and Lyndon B. Johnson, a Democrat.

Loyal to his commander in chief, Westmoreland helped quash the “revolt of the colonels” -- seven bright young officers who loudly challenged then-President Eisenhower’s “massive retaliation” strategy, which favored the nuclear power of the Air Force and Navy over a shrunken Army.

But privately, Westmoreland agreed with the admirals, though he disagreed with their decision to go public with the dispute. Taylor and then-Congressman John F. Kennedy felt the same way, and both would prove important Westmoreland supporters.

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With Taylor’s help, Westmoreland was promoted to major general -- at age 42, the youngest in the Army -- and given command of the 101st Airborne Division. Then, in 1960, Taylor and Kennedy saw to it that he was named superintendent at West Point. Only MacArthur had gotten the job at a younger age.

Credited with improving efficiency at the academy, Westmoreland served two years there before being promoted to lieutenant general and given command of the XVIII Airborne Corps, which included both the 82nd and 101st airborne divisions. Then, on Jan. 7, 1964 -- only a few months after succeeding the slain Kennedy, President Johnson named Westmoreland chief of military operations in Vietnam.

Westmoreland met privately with an aging MacArthur before leaving for Southeast Asia. “I’m sure you realize that your new assignment is filled with opportunities,” MacArthur told him, adding, after a pause, “and saturated with hazards.”

The situation Westmoreland inherited from the previous U.S. commander in Vietnam, Gen. Paul D. Harkins, had been deteriorating steadily. The junta that took over after the murderous overthrow of Ngo Dinh Diem’s corrupt, nepotistic regime in South Vietnam had proved inept, and the communists were winning major military engagements.

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Westmoreland decided to wage a war of attrition against the communist forces, to kill them faster than they could be replaced. To pursue this “search-and-destroy” strategy, he began using American military personnel not just as advisors but as combat troops in large, well-armed units that were designed for large-scale battles.

But despite the repeated increases in U.S. troop strength, Westmoreland’s tactics failed. The North Vietnamese regulars and Viet Cong guerrillas chose to fight small, hit-and-run engagements instead of major, protracted battles, denying the Americans an opportunity to bring their superior firepower to bear.

Tens of thousands of communist troops were killed, but Stanley Karnow, a reporter who wrote a well-regarded history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, said Westmoreland never seemed to appreciate the losses Hanoi was willing to suffer in what it perceived as a war of national liberation.

“Westmoreland didn’t understand -- nor did anyone else understand -- that there wasn’t a breaking point,” Karnow wrote. “Instead of breaking their morale, they were breaking ours.”

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Meanwhile, as more Americans were leaving for Vietnam in uniforms and returning in body bags, the antiwar movement in the United States gathered steam. The first demonstrators were students, but they soon were joined by clergymen, teachers, journalists and politicians.

“The antiwar movement was alien to Westmoreland, and so were the people in it,” a former staff officer told Westmoreland biographer Samuel Zaffiri. “He wanted to be a hero. Instead, he found himself being vilified.”

During a trip to the United States in the spring of 1967, Westmoreland told journalists that he and his men were “dismayed by recent unpatriotic acts here at home.” He said these acts “inevitably will cost lives” of U.S. troops and were handing the enemy successes that “he cannot match on the battlefield.”

Although some politicians and editorial writers defended Westmoreland’s comments, far more condemned him as an opponent of free speech.

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The war continued, with both sides suffering heavy losses.

Johnson, haunted by his growing doubts and the mounting opposition to the conflict, was unwilling to commit the United States to an all-out war. He limited the number of additional troops sent into combat and ordered periodic pauses in the bombing of North Vietnam in the vain hope that Hanoi might be encouraged to negotiate.

“A major problem was that Washington policy decisions forced us to fight with but one hand,” Westmoreland wrote. Nonetheless, he continued to predict that the U.S. could achieve victory.

“We are winning, slowly but steadily,” he told Defense Secretary Robert McNamara in the summer of 1967.

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Then, on Jan. 31, 1968, the communists launched the Tet offensive. In most cases, their attacks were repelled, but the fighting was fierce and the overwhelming image on U.S. television was of cities in smoldering ruins.

“Here’s poor Westmoreland, standing in front of the cameras amid all this disaster,” Karnow wrote. “He’s saying [the communists] are taking a terrible beating [in the Tet campaign], and he’s not wrong about that. But it’s all falling on deaf ears, because a month earlier, he was telling us how well it was all going.”

Two months later, a discouraged Johnson announced he would not seek reelection and said he was bringing Westmoreland, by then a full general, home to be Army chief of staff. The president insisted that the move was a promotion, but many thought the general had become an embarrassment and was being kicked upstairs.

In the months that followed, Richard M. Nixon succeeded Johnson as president, and despite Westmoreland’s strenuous objections began scaling back U.S. military involvement in Vietnam. Unhappy with Nixon’s decision, Westmoreland retired from active duty in the summer of 1972.

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A year later, fed up with the war, Congress passed the War Powers Act, slashing U.S. aid to South Vietnam and prohibiting combat by U.S. forces there. Finally, on April 30, 1975, Saigon fell to the communists, and the war was over.

Westmoreland, who had launched an unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign in South Carolina the year before, issued a statement calling the defeat in Vietnam “a sad day in the glorious history of our country.” But as he would admit later, no one cared much what he had to say anymore.

Biographer Zaffiri said that when Westmoreland addressed a near-empty hall at Southern Connecticut State College on Oct. 20, 1981, few of the students there even knew who he was.

But that would change.

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On Jan. 21, 1982, CBS Television announced that it had uncovered “a deliberate plot to fool the American public, the Congress and perhaps the White House into believing we were winning a war that, in fact, we were losing.”

In a documentary aired two nights later, the network argued that to show progress in the war, Westmoreland’s command had underestimated enemy troop strength by 50%, suppressed information about enemy infiltration and erased computer tapes to hide the deception.

At issue was Westmoreland’s contention in 1967, relayed at the time to the CIA, that several hundred thousand “irregular” troops should not be included in the standard “order of battle” figures for the enemy that were reported by the Army. A compromise was reached, using Westmoreland’s figures, with the irregulars listed in an addendum.

Four months after the documentary ran, TV Guide published “Anatomy of a Smear,” an article stating that CBS had used quotes out of context, misrepresented some testimony and ignored witnesses who would have defended Westmoreland.

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After an internal investigation, Burton Benjamin, who had made the documentary, said that though a conspiracy had not been proved, the program still had merit. CBS refused to apologize.

Westmoreland then filed a $120-million libel suit against CBS that went to trial on Oct. 9, 1982. After days of conflicting testimony, a settlement was reached. Westmoreland didn’t get any money, but he did get a statement:

“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 fit.”

Both sides claimed victory, but neither felt very good about it.

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In the years that followed, Westmoreland spent much of his time at his comfortable home in Charleston.

“I have no apologies, no regrets. I gave my very best efforts,” he said of his service. “I’ve been hung in effigy. I’ve been spat upon. You just have to let those things bounce off.”

He made few public appearances, mostly at events attended by appreciative groups of longtime supporters.

Zaffiri described one of them, a Veterans Day parade in Chicago in 1996:

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“Two hundred thousand gathered in a long column,” he wrote. “Some wore business suits and neatly polished wing-tip shoes. [But] by far the majority arrived in bits and pieces of old uniforms, their middle-aged stomachs bulging.”

Westmoreland, still strong at 82, walked at the head of the column, wearing his full-dress uniform, bedecked with all his medals and campaign ribbons because “somehow, today, it feels right.”

“Hey, Westy’s here!” men cried out at the first sight of him. “The old man came!”

It was a five-hour parade, and toward the end, a veteran who had walked the length of it with his 10-year-old daughter paused for a break and a cold beer.

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“It was a long parade, Daddy,” the girl said.

“It was a long war,” her father replied.

In addition to his son, Westmoreland is survived by his wife and their daughter, Katherine.

Details of funeral services were pending.

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