Westy: Our Commander-in-Chief to the end

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,

'standing at the lectern, his shakiness disappeared.  Speaking without notes, he was a man of composure and purpose.  With unabashedly colorful rhetoric, he hypnotized his audience." 

The words MacArthur spoke still resonate down the years: 

"'Duty,' 'Honor,' 'Country' — those three hallowed words reverently dictate what you want to be, what you can be, what you will be.  They are your rallying point to build courage when courage seems to fail, to regain faith when there seems to be little cause for faith, to create hope when hope becomes forlorn...they teach you not to substitute words for action; not to seek the path of comfort, but to face the stress and spur of difficulty and challenge; to stand up in the storm, but to have compassion on those who fall...to have a heart that is clean, a goal that is high...to be serious, yet never take yourself too seriously; to be modest so that you will remember the simplicity of true greatness; the open mind of true wisdom, the meekness of true strength...The code which those words perpetuate embraces the highest moral laws...the soldier, above all other men, is required to practice the greatest act of religious training — sacrifice.  In battle and in the face of danger and death, he discloses those divine attributes which his Maker gave when he created man in his own image.  No physical courage and no brute instinct can take the place of the Divine help which alone can sustain him. However horrible the incidents of war may be, the soldier who is called upon to offer up and give his life for his country, is the noblest development of mankind.'  

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;

'We tried to benefit in Vietnam from the experience of the French.  Certain incidents such as the ambush and destruction of Groupement Mobile 100 and Dien Bien Phu were evermost in my mind.  When I arrived in Vietnam, there was no French liaison officer, but there was a French Embassy in Saigon with a French attach   Later, I consulted frequently with a retired French general officer who had spent many years in Indochina and who visited Saigon on a number of occasions.' 

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:

"Be understanding and basic in your advice; be patient and work with them to develop their sense of responsibility and their ability to make decisions.' 

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:

'It was clear to me that he chose me because of my disagreement with his position on Vietnam and because he was willing to give me the opportunity to argue directly with him on my point of view — a true measure of the man...he was the most gracious and gentlemanly person with whom I had ever served.'

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:

'It is heartening to me to see Vietnam Veterans rising to positions of leadership in our society.  Their star will continue to rise and that will be a good thing for America.'   President Reagan would later call the Vietnam war ' a noble cause.' 

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

'while we fervently hope that we win this case, my counsel and I are equally hopeful that...the public's faith in the free press, one of our greatest institutions, will be restored.'  

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

'tones and tints...gone glimmering through dreams of things that were.  Their memory is one of wondrous beauty, watered by tears and coaxed and caressed by the smiles of yesterday.  I listen then, but with thirsty ear, for the witching melody of faint bugles blowing reveille,  of far drums beating the long roll.'

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.