William Childs Westmoreland

William Childs Westmoreland (born 1914) was commander of all American forces in the Vietnam War from 1964 until 1968, when he became chief of staff of the U.S. Army.

By the time the political and military situation in South Vietnam had become almost chaotic West-moreland had risen to the rank of general. He had acquired a reputation for efficiency and was a protegé of General Maxwell D. Taylor, a leading proponent of the "Flexible Response" and the popular counterinsurgency strategies of the Kennedy administration.

In early 1964 President Lyndon Johnson sent West-moreland to Saigon as deputy commander, U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam. Within a few months, at the rank of full general, he succeeded to command American forces assisting the Republic of Vietnam in its war against the Communist Viet Cong insurgents. Westmoreland's assumption of command coincided with a decisive change in the nature of the conflict. The Viet Cong began shifting from small-scale guerrilla warfare to larger, more conventional attacks. Beginning early in 1965, regular North Vietnamese army units came south down the Ho Chi Minh Trail to reinforce the insurgents. In the same period the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson further escalated the conflict, first with a limited bombing campaign against North Vietnam and then by introducing U.S. combat forces into South Vietnam.

Westmoreland did not determine overall American strategy and had no control over most of the air war against North Vietnam. He did direct American operations within South Vietnam. He attempted to carry out a balanced campaign of attacks on enemy regular units and their bases on the one hand, and assistance to the South Vietnamese in pacification and population security on the other. Many observers, however, criticized him for emphasizing the first part of the strategy at the expense of the second. His name became associated with tactics of "search and destroy." In February 1968 the Viet Cong launched their Tet offensive. Although Westmoreland, with considerable reason, regarded the outcome as an allied victory, this display of enemy strength convinced much of the American public that the war was a failure. President Johnson then turned toward de-escalation and negotiation. In the aftermath of Tet in July 1968, Westmoreland returned to Washington to become chief of staff of the army.

As chief of staff, Westmoreland faced a difficult task. He had to extricate the army from Vietnam, reorient it toward the future, and make the transition from the draft to an all-volunteer service, all in a period of virulent anti-military sentiment. Although hampered by his own identification with an unpopular war, Westmoreland contributed much toward the post-Vietnam rebuilding of the army. He also championed his service's cause by extensive public speaking, despite antiwar and anti-military heckling and abuse.

Westmoreland retired as chief of staff on June 30, 1972. After that he made his home in South Carolina and continued an active public career. In 1974 he sought the Republican nomination for governor but was decisively defeated in the primary election. The controversies of the Vietnam War continued to follow him. In a January 1982 television documentary, "The Uncounted Enemy, " the Columbia Broadcasting System accused Westmoreland of manipulating figures on enemy strength to deceive President Johnson concerning progress in the war. In response, Westmoreland sued CBS for libel. The case ended in February 1985 in an out-of-court settlement which left the factual issues unresolved and both sides claiming victory.

Further Reading on William Childs Westmoreland

The earliest full-length biography of Westmoreland is the highly favorable one by Ernest B. Furgerson, Westmoreland: The Inevitable General (1968). Westmoreland tells the story of his command in Vietnam in A Soldier Reports (1976). His strategy is sharply criticized by David Halberstam in The Best and the Brightest (1972). Gen. Bruce Palmer, Jr., in The Twenty-Five Year War: America's Military Role in Vietnam (1984) also analyzes and is critical of Westmoreland's conduct of operations. Don Kowet in A Matter of Honor (1984) tells the story of the CBS controversy, as does Renata Adler in Reckless Disregard: Westmoreland v. CBS et al.; Sharon v. TIME (1986). The crucial Tet offensive is recounted in Don Oberdorfer's Tet! (1971).

In 1994, Vietnam veteran Samuel Zaffiri published a biography, Westmoreland: A Biography of General William C. Westmoreland. A book reviewer stated that the book offered "a fair hearing for a man who has been alternately overlooked and maligned by history." Articles of interest can be found in the New York Times (January 25, 1991; September 30, 1990; and November 28, 1988) and the Los Angeles Times (April 22, 1991 and March 25, 1991).