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When the United States became involved in the Vietnam conflict, I was a young mother and housewife. Almost daily, my husband and I viewed the progression of the first war ever to be televised. We learned the names of foreign towns and military leaders, and we became familiar with the names and faces of Americans who led others of our generation into battle. Among them, of course, was General William C. Westmoreland.

Two decades after the war ended, I received my college degree and went to work as a freelance writer. Meanwhile, Westmoreland had become less of a media object, though still an imposing national figure.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., was dedicated in 1982. Not long after that, Vietnam veteran John Devitt and a handful of his friends designed and built a half-size replica of the Wall that traveled throughout the country. The Moving Wall came to Peoria, Ill., on the 25th anniversary of America’s entry into the war, and General Westmoreland agreed to be the guest speaker at the event. More than 100,000 people visited the wall site in Peoria to reflect, honor the dead and begin healing their own emotional wounds during a weeklong series of events focused on the war.

I was fortunate enough to arrange a private breakfast interview with General Westmoreland on September 23, 1990. He was a striking figure: distinguished looking in a gray suit, his posture rigid but his manner unhurried and relaxed, even though he was scheduled to be at the airport in an hour.

Vietnam: I read your 1976 book, A Soldier Reports, about your years in uniform. Why did you write it?

Westmoreland: I wrote that book because a lot of the American people don’t understand the military…don’t understand the orientation. The military lead turbulent lives, but they are people like everybody else.

VN: In your book, you stated that one reason you steered toward a career in the military was because you developed an early love of travel.

Westmoreland: When I went to the Boy Scout World Jamboree at age 15, I was an Eagle Scout. I went with boys I’d never met before. I was a stranger in the group, and that was a good experience. It whetted my appetite for travel. I was fascinated with the European countries. I was raised in a disciplined family. My father was well disciplined. He graduated from The Citadel and was on the board of trustees. I went there for one year. My father was never in the military himself, but he had an admiration for the military and an appreciation that it was not a narrow profession. He was in a narrow profession [managing a textile mill], and I think he applauded my urge to break out of that life. Mother was very religious. My father was of extremely high moral character, but I wouldn’t say he was a devout Episcopalian, which my mother was. She read a portion of the Bible every morning at breakfast.

VN: Are you an only child?

Westmoreland: I have a sister who is about two years younger than I am.

VN: Once you started on the course of a military career, was there ever a time you seriously thought of changing your mind?

Westmoreland: Actually, no. In all candor, if it were not for World War II, I might not have chosen a military career, but I rather doubt it because no other profession appealed to me. My father wanted me to be a lawyer. He had aspired to be a lawyer, but he was the oldest of five children, and when his father died he had to run the family. As things turned out, he approved of my staying in the service. World War II had a lot to do with it; then Korea; then Vietnam.

VN: During those wars, how did you handle thoughts of your vulnerability, your mortality?

Westmoreland: I don’t understand what you mean.

VN: Well, you could have been killed.

Westmoreland: That’s an interesting question. But I never thought about this. It was really never a factor. One just…this was something expected. It was kind of a business, so to speak. I’m not sure there weren’t times when one was frightened, but that was kind of in the background, it was never up front.

VN: You said in your book that over the course of your military career the equipment changed considerably. What about the men? What are the differences among the men who served in World War II, in Korea and in Vietnam?

Westmoreland: Let me reflect on that a bit. Basically, the men didn’t change…the education level of the troops was affected by our environment and our educational system. The unit I was in before World War II, the men were basically illiterate. We had a cross section of our society. We had a lot of people with very little education. Over a period of time you get…an intuitive sense of judgment that evolves where you can spot leaders — and leadership is not necessarily a function of education. But constantly you were trying to pick people who would be effective as corporals and sergeants and first sergeants. And you were always looking for young men who would be potential officers, who you would push to go to Officer Candidate School.

VN: Was that related to their educational level?

Westmoreland: It was in general a function of education, but not entirely. In World War II, you got people from across social and geographical sections of the country. One of the interesting things in World War II — it was a matter of policy — you tried to kind of mix people up. And there was a pragmatic reason for that, which we learned in World War I. You called a national reserve or guard to active duty and if that unit suffered great casualties, in effect that would wipe out an entire town. So there was an effort to avoid that. If we go to war in the Middle East and the reserves are called up again, you have [that problem] again. On the other hand, most of the units called up in reserves are in a kind of support role and not necessarily on the front line. So I don’t believe they will be vulnerable to a great extent, but it is a factor that comes into play. The reserves are recruited from the local environment, but most are in a support role. [Editor’s note: The United States did in fact encounter such a problem again during the first Gulf War, when on February 25, 1991, 29 soldiers were killed and 99 were wounded — including 13 dead and 43 wounded from the 14th Quartermaster Detachment, an Army Reserve unit mobilized from Greensburg, Pa. — when an Iraqi Scud missile hit their barracks.]

VN: In the book The Vietnam War, edited by John S. Bowman, you’re characterized as an efficient, disciplined, organization man. How does that compare with the way you look at yourself?

Westmoreland: I think that’s…an exaggeration of my capabilities. But I’m a very conscientious man and have always taken responsibilities very seriously. Every time I was given a job I put myself into it totally. I lived it. When I went to sleep at night, I thought about it. I woke up thinking about it. My life was totally enmeshed in the job I was given. And I worked long hours and had very little time for extracurricular activities. I’ve been fortunate to have a remarkable wife who tolerated it. She’s very bright, very down to earth. She understands people.

VN: The story of your early friendship with your wife, the former Katherine Van Deusen — how you met her when she was 9 and how she said she’d wait for you and she did — is very romantic.

Westmoreland: It’s a very true story. I have been flattered by statements in that regard. She can juggle more balls in the air and not let one drop. She had read all the classics and was a freshman at Cornell when she was 15. She still reads two or three books a week now. She’s a terrific housekeeper, a wonderful cook, did a wonderful job of raising our three kids. I was never around. I’m not sure there’s another one like her.

VN: Do your children live near you in South Carolina?

Westmoreland: The oldest has three children and lives in Kennebunkport, Maine. She’s a family counselor. My son is a lawyer in New York. He’s just been married a year. Our youngest daughter lives in Florida and she has two kids. Kitsy and I would rather have them close by….We’re not tired of traveling…it’s a way of life, there’s nothing novel about it…but we’d like the kids to be closer.

VN: Why do you think you’re so popular with the GIs?

Westmoreland: I have always been, more or less. I don’t think I have been loved by my troops, but I think I have been respected. They deduced from my conduct that I was going to do my best to take care of them. That was the responsibility of the old man. Lots were older than I was, but if by actions they realize you’re the old man and dedicated to taking care of them, it takes on the aspects of a paternal relationship.

VN: How did you take care of them?

Westmoreland: When I took command in Vietnam, I gave great emphasis to food and medical care — and to the mail. The psychology of mail is contact with home. For a letter to take two weeks is unthinkable. I put people there so the mail would be expedited. And…we had the best food that any battlefield ever had. [Also,] when a man went into battle, if he got hurt, he could be evacuated into the hands of good medical personnel, thanks to the emphasis that we placed on that, particularly the helicopter ambulance. When a man is injured, longevity is measured in minutes, and the quicker you can get him into the hands of medical personnel, the better chance for his survival.

VN: During your years in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, your days were intense and exciting. You retired from the Army in 1972. Could you tell me about that time?

Westmoreland: That was an awkward period because…President Lyndon B. Johnson did not want the Vietnam War to broaden. He wanted the North Vietnamese to leave their brothers in the South alone. And there was not a quick conclusion to that war. The American public turned against it because it went on so long. There was a tendency to blame it on the military. I personified that. I became an unpopular figure in the United States. It was a frustrating experience, but I didn’t let it get me down. I’m psychologically tough.

VN: What about the general popularity of the military?

Westmoreland: I was truly grieved by the reception that the Vietnam veteran received. That really hurt. He did what the country asked him to do. The young fellows, they couldn’t take it. They developed some real problems. But it was basically generated by the negative public attitude, an uninformed public attitude. So when I retired in 1972, my number one mission was to go around to talk to veterans and the American public to get this matter in some perspective.The last man in the world who should have been criticized was the American soldier. They should have criticized me. And I got my share. It’s taken 20 years to reorient those attitudes, and I think we have come a long way toward reorienting that understanding. And I must say that was one of the reasons I wrote A Soldier Reports. In the book I tried to tell a factual story.

VN: Did you actually write the book?

Westmoreland: No. I had a man named Charles MacDonald write it. He was a professional military historian. He and I spent two full days a week for about six months to map the strategy of the book. I would talk, and he’d take notes. He’d come up with a manuscript, and I’d go over it. Frankly, I don’t have the skill to write it. And it would have taken me about six years to write.

VN: How do you spend your days now?

Westmoreland: I get a tremendous quantity of mail from all over the world. I get three or four invitations a week to speak. I’ve spoken in every state of the Union — in Guam, in Puerto Rico. When I retired, I made a commitment to myself that I would accept any invitation to talk about Vietnam, and I did. I went to the most radical, socialistic groups, the most radical campuses. I got every discourtesy in the book. I answered questions for up to two hours. But I never let it affect me psychologically, and outwardly it didn’t affect me at all. I don’t take criticism lying down. Anytime it was advertised that I was going to be at a particular place at a particular time, the radicals would be there [as well as] cameras with TV news. They were always there. It got to the point it didn’t even raise my blood pressure. It was an interesting time. I look at it as somewhat of a challenge, psychologically, and even personally. Somebody had to stand up and be counted — somebody who knew what it was all about. The radicals were very vocal [but] they were very much in the minority. I wasn’t about to let them monopolize public discourse and remain unchallenged. I suppose you were one of those on the campus protesting?

VN: No, sir. I was raising a family of young children. Why did you come to Peoria to be our keynote speaker?

Westmoreland: The Vietnam War is my number one priority. I’ve tried to spread myself thin and visit all sections of the country.

VN: Have you taken up any hobbies?

Westmoreland: I’ve been an athlete all my life. Never outstanding, but pretty good. I’ve tried all sports. My wife and I both played tennis. I had a heart attack [about 11 years prior to this interview], so I gave up tennis. I play golf now. Used to do squash, racquetball, polo. Never outstanding in any of them, but I had fun. I used to be a jogger and a runner…I do a lot of walking now.

VN: I’ve heard you were involved in the Trilateral Commission.

Westmoreland: What is that? I’ve never heard of it.

VN: It’s a commission of private citizens from North America, Western Europe and Japan who meet annually to analyze issues and common problems.

Westmoreland: There’s an awful lot of misinformation around. It’s a phenomenon in our society that will always be with us, because we are a free and open society.

VN: Would you tell me about your years at West Point?

Westmoreland: I loved West Point from the day I arrived….I have nothing but admiration for the institution. West Point is unique. It’s got tradition, character; it stands for duty, honor and country, which is their motto. As a cadet, I felt so privileged to be there, and I haven’t yet figured out how I was made first captain, because I was not an outstanding student. I was an adequate student. I worked hard, but my work was not self-serving. West Point meant everything to me and still does. I try to get there twice a year….Suppose, say, we’re going to the Rutgers game — we’ll stay with the superintendent, where we used to live. When I was superintendent [appointed by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1960 and served until 1963], my wife was in her early 30s. She had such terrific rapport with the cadets. She was my greatest asset. I didn’t marry her until after World War II, but she has complemented me in every job I’ve ever had. She entertains beautifully, she’s a terrific judge of character, a woman who is very bright and very well read, but very human. And very sentimental, but tough. She’s had to be.

VN: Was your family usually able to travel with you?

Westmoreland: They were in Vietnam for a year. That was a scary time. But other than that, I just saw them two or three times a year.

VN: Do your grandchildren ask you about the war?

Westmoreland: Only the 14-year-old. I hope he does develop an interest in West Point and that he can get in. The others are just 2, 3, 4 and 5 years old. We don’t have any strong expectations for them. We just take it as it comes.

After Korea, he served in a succession of increasingly important posts in the U.S. Army, becoming the youngest major general in the Army at the age of 42. In 1960, he was appointed superintendent of West Point, where he came to the attention of President John F. Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, who were very impressed with his abilities. After serving as the commander of XVIII Airborne Corps, he was selected by Johnson to replace General Paul D. Harkins as COMUSMACV in Saigon.

After serving six months as Harkins’ deputy, Westmoreland assumed command in June 1964. He played a key role in the expanding U.S. commitment in Vietnam. When North Vietnamese regulars threatened to cut through South Vietnam in the Central Highlands, President Johnson, acting on the advice of Westmoreland and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, increased the level of U.S. combat forces in South Vietnam to more than 100,000.

From 1965 to 1967, Westmoreland was instrumental in raising the level of U.S. forces committed to South Vietnam and in developing the military strategy for the ground war. This strategy was threefold: first, halt the losing trend of the South Vietnamese forces by the end of 1965; second, conduct offensive operations to defeat major VC and NVA units and restore pacification programs; and third, secure and destroy enemy base areas. Implicit was cutting North Vietnamese support to the South, which Westmoreland intended to do when ground troops were available and permitted to operate against the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos and Cambodia.

Westmoreland’s plan required steadily increasing commitments of U.S. manpower. By 1966, there were more than 450,000 American troops in Vietnam. Those troops were employed in an aggressive war of attrition characterized by large-scale search-and-destroy operations. Despite the mounting enemy body count that resulted, the number of Communists, whether North or South Vietnamese, continued to grow. Massive bombing failed to halt the flow of enemy supplies down the Ho Chi Minh Trail into South Vietnam. Meanwhile, the American casualty toll began to soar. Nevertheless, Westmoreland assured the American people in 1967 that the United States and its South Vietnamese allies were winning in Vietnam.

In January 1968, North Vietnam launched the countrywide Tet Offensive. Westmoreland and his command, although taken by surprise, reacted quickly and inflicted a devastating tactical defeat on the attackers. But the Communists had shown that no part of South Vietnam was safe from their operations, salvaging a great psychological victory. The scope and violence of the Tet Offensive embarrassingly contradicted Westmoreland’s assessments and added to the growing credibility gap that had developed between the Johnson administration and a large segment of the American people.

Still, Westmoreland interpreted the outcome of Tet on the battlefield as an opportunity and, supported by Earle Wheeler, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, he proposed a new strategy that called for the commitment of an additional 200,000 troops to be used for operations outside South Vietnam to attack enemy sanctuaries. President Johnson denied Westmoreland’s request (except for a small number of reinforcements) and recalled the general to be chief of staff of the U.S. Army.

As chief of staff, Westmoreland had to deal with the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Vietnam, restoring the Army’s readiness to function in other theaters of operation, mitigating the Army’s racial tensions, bringing drug use in the Army under control, and making the transition to an all-volunteer Army. He had to do all this in a climate dominated by intense anti-military sentiments in U.S. politics and society. He was successful in restructuring the Army, but some of the other problems would have to be addressed by his successors.

Westmoreland retired in 1972, but remained a major figure in the postwar debate about U.S. involvement in Vietnam. He vigorously defended his conduct of the war in his 1976 memoir, A Soldier Reports, suggesting that the war was not lost militarily, but due to civilian-imposed limitations. In 1983 Westmoreland sued CBS over a television program that alleged his participation in a conspiracy to manipulate the number of VC and North Vietnamese troops he faced. The suit was settled out of court and both sides claimed victory.

Westmoreland has been called the inevitable general, and his achievements before the Vietnam War were substantial. It was the conduct of the war in Vietnam, however, for which history will remember him, and his strategy remains the subject of heated debate. Some critics have charged that Westmoreland’s strategy could never have prevailed in Vietnam without far higher troop levels than President Johnson was willing to provide. Various others fault Westmoreland for undue reliance on U.S. combat forces, excessive use of helicopters, lack of emphasis on improving the fighting capability of the ARVN, or lack of attention to counterinsurgency.

The most controversial aspect of Westmoreland’s approach to the war, however, did and still does lie in his search-and-destroy strategy. Part of the controversy during the war arose from a flawed articulation of that strategy, whose operational concept was never explained clearly to the American people. Although Westmoreland envisioned operations that would search for enemy units, base camps and logistic support areas to destroy them, the emphasis on body counts and the images of U.S. troops burning Vietnamese villages gave the impression that American troops were destroying Vietnam itself in an ever-escalating spiral of violence and destruction. Westmoreland’s initial press coverage was positive (he was named Time magazine Man of the Year in 1965), but it slipped badly following the Tet Offensive. In the end, he came to be closely identified with America’s defeat in Vietnam.

Since retirement, General Westmoreland has been involved in a number of activities. He headed the Task Force for Economic Growth for the governor of South Carolina in 1972 and ran unsuccessfully for governor of that state himself in 1974. His other pursuits include serving on the boards of several corporations and organizations while traveling extensively as a lecturer and public speaker. Westmoreland died July 18, 2005 at age 91 of natural causes while residing at the Bishop Gadsden retirement home where he had lived with his wife, Katherine.

-James Willbanks

Valerie Wieland is a freelance writer, editor and publicist who writes from Murfreesboro, Tenn. For additional reading, she suggests General Westmoreland’s 1976 memoir, A Soldier Reports, and Samuel Zaffiri’s Westmoreland: A Biography of General William C. Westmoreland.

This article was originally published in the December 2003 issue of Vietnam Magazine.

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