July 22, 2005
Westy: Our Commander-in-Chief to the endBy John B. Dwyer
General William Childs Westmoreland died July 19 in South Carolina at age 91. He will be interred at West Point Cemetery at 11 o'clock on July 23.
Born in Saxon, South Carolina March 26, 1914, he spent a year at his father's alma mater, the Citadel, before entering West Point, where he was First Captain of the Corps of Cadets and recipient of the Pershing Award for Leadership.
During Westmoreland's first year at the Point, Army Chief of Staff General Douglas MacArthur gave the commencement address, calling West Point 'the soul of the Army.' Thirty years later, when General Westmoreland was superintendent, the old soldier, the American Caesar, gave his famous farewell speech on the occasion of his receiving the Sylvanus Thayer Award.
In his book A Soldier Reports, Westmoreland recalled that MacArthur seemed rather frail from a recent bout with the flu, that he ate little at lunch in the cadet mess. But,
The words MacArthur spoke still resonate down the years:
General Westmoreland's life and career embodied the West Point motto. In WW2 he commanded, initially, the 9th Infantry Division's 34th Field Artillery in North Africa and Sicily. In France he was executive officer for the entire division's artillery units. By the time the 9th hit Germany, Westmoreland was divisional chief of staff. When the 9th was crossing the Remagen Bridge, as he describes in his book , it was so dark that then Col. Westmoreland had to lie on the hood of his Jeep and give voice commands to his driver. He came through the war unscathed, though he had his share of near misses, as when a mortar round hit his Jeep just after he'd gotten out of it. In the post—war years Westy became a paratrooper, commanding the 504th Parachute Infantry before serving as executive officer, 82nd Airborne Division. He commanded the 187th Airborne Regimental Combat Team — the Rakassans — in Korea. In 1956 at age 42 he became the youngest major general in the U.S. army.
In 1963, his last year as West Point superintendent, Westmoreland sponsored a counterinsurgency conference, convinced that 'Communist insurgency was to be the dominant military challenge of the future." He read every book he could get his hands on dealing with the subject. And as he told me in a treasured letter dated September 16, 1983;
Late that year, having been ordered to Vietnam, he made a final visit to MacArthur, who told him to treat the Vietnamese military as he did his West Point cadets:
The old warrior cautioned the younger one that he might have to resort to a scorched earth policy in order to defeat the guerrilla. He urged Westmoreland to always have plenty of artillery as it was MacArthur's belief that "the Oriental... greatly fears artillery.'
General William C. Westmoreland arrived in Saigon in late January 1964. His new aide was Captain (later general) David Palmer, who had impressed the new Commander, U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) with his forthrightness. He had informed Westmoreland prior to deployment that he had no wish to be his aide because he, Palmer, was scheduled for a tour in Vietnam. The general couldn't reveal his destination at the time, but after the White House announcement of his new command position, he 'pinned Palmer down and asked 'Do I meet your requirements now, Captain?''
Westmoreland never had problems with differing points of view. Retired General Volney Warner recalled in an e—mail to this writer that when Westy was Army Chief of Staff he had served as his Executive Officer for two years. Earlier in his career, Warner taught leadership at the Point when Westmoreland had been Superintendent and had been in Jump School when the general commanded the 101st Airborne Division. Back when Warner had been a Province advisor in Vietnam he became disillusioned with the course of the war. Upon return to the States, he participated in a study that was critical of Westmoreland's Vietnam strategy. But when asked, subsequently, if he'd like to be his Executive Officer, he said 'yes.' As General Warner puts it:
And General Westmoreland continued to live up to 'Duty, Honor, Country,' in his retirement, to bear with soldierly dignity the slings and arrows of defamatory attacks by anti—war zealots and the attempt by CBS to smear him with their infamous January 1982 documentary, 'Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception.'
The hack job attempted to prove that Gen. Westmoreland had deliberately misled LBJ, the Pentagon and Americans as to the actual strength of the VC/NVA prior to the 1968 Tet Offensive. That the allegation was patently false became obvious when it was revealed that they were based charges made by ex—CIA analyst Sam Adams. A 1975 investigation by the House Select Committee on Intelligence had discredited them all.
TV GUIDE ran a major expose article titled 'Anatomy Of A Smear: How CBS Broke The Rules and 'Got' Westmoreland.' The general instituted a $120 million libel suit against CBS. Vietnam vets across the country rallied to his defense. Efforts such as the Veterans For Westmoreland Committee were organized to raise money to defray legal fees. The general stated that any money he received in a settlement would go to veterans charities and their families. During that period the nation took another look at its Vietnam vets, even as Gen. Westmoreland, in numerous speeches, stressed how many of them had succeeded; how proud he was of them all; how they had, in fact, never been defeated. In another letter to this writer, he said:
But then in December 1983, Gen. Westmoreland issued a statement that detailed his libel suit case particulars and proved once again that he was indeed an officer and a gentleman. Instead of pursuing the case, he decided that it was not fair to judge the media by the isolated actions of some of its irresponsible members; that
In the end, much to the frustration of many vets, General Westmoreland settled for an apology from CBS.
'Duty, Honor, Country' to the very end. And to the very end the Commander—in—Chief of this country's Vietnam veterans. And I wonder if, as the shadows lengthened, he experienced what MacArthur described in his farewell speech, the
When the lingering, sonorous notes of 'Taps' are played at West Point, Vietnam veterans across the country will be standing at attention, saluting their commander to the end of his days.
John B. Dwyer is a military historian and frequent contributor.