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Westmoreland: The General Who Lost Vietnamby Lewis Sorley
The premise of this study is that, unless and until we understand William Childs Westmoreland, we will never understand fully what happened to us in Vietnam, or why.
Westmorelands involvement in the Vietnam War was the defining aspect of his life. He himself perceived that, and was driven for the rest of his days to characterize, explain, rationalize, and defend that role. His memoirs reflect the fixation. In a long career totaling thirty-six years as an officer, and a string of postings to increasingly important assignments, the four years he commanded American forces in Vietnam, and the aftermath, constitute virtually the entirety of his account, all the rest a meager tenth.
Understanding Westmoreland, a surprisingly complex man, is not easy. Fueled by ambition, driving himself relentlessly, of impressive military mien, energetic and effective at self-promotion, and skillful in cultivating influential sponsors, from his earliest days of service he led his contemporaries, was admired and advanced by his seniors, and progressed rapidly upward.
But Westmoreland also had an extraordinary capacity for polarizing the views of those who knew him—or at least those who encountered him, for not many would claim they really knew this distant and difficult man. Few remained indifferent. Among his admirers, an officer who worked directly for Westmoreland when he was Army Chief of Staff described him as “the most gracious and gentlemanly person with whom I ever served.” An officer who was his executive officer in Vietnam regarded Westmoreland as the only man he ever met to whom the term “great” could be applied.
There were others, though, many others, who had a darker view. Among the most prominent was General Harold K. Johnson, a man of surpassing decency and good will. “I dont happen to be a fan of General Westmorelands,” said Johnson. “I dont think I ever was, and I certainly didnt become one as a result of the Vietnam War or later during his tenure as Chief of Staff of the Army.” Another officer, one who worked closely with Westmoreland in Vietnam, described him as “awed by his own magnificence.”
Westmorelands own frequent self-characterizations are revealing. “I have been a person who has sought responsibility,” he told an interviewer. “I diligently tried to do a good job, not because I was bucking for anything higher, but because I was trying to do a job for the sake of doing a good job. That was my orientation. As a matter of fact, it was throughout my career. It was to do a job for the sake of doing a good job.”1
Westmoreland took himself seriously, very seriously. There are few photographs of him smiling. Typically he is, instead, and very obviously, posing. While his description in The Howitzer, the West Point yearbook, credits him with a good sense of humor, he apparently lost or repressed it as he advanced in age and seniority. Jerry Warner, a teenager when he first met Westmoreland, for whom his father worked, suggested an explanation. Westmoreland, he observed, “had a very keen humorous and affectionate side which he held in reserve and in confidence for his family and those he felt, by extension, were a part of it.”
There were other changes over the years. “He was an excellent commander at lower levels,” Sergeant Major of the Army Leon Van Autreve said of him. “And his people loved him. But I tell you, after that it was about a hundred and eighty. Its a peculiar thing that you can gain or lose so rapidly the affection of your people.” Van Autreve recalled an occasion when Westmoreland as Army Chief of Staff had come to address a gathering of senior noncommissioned officers at Fort McNair in Washington. “He was getting ready to go outside,” said Van Autreve, “and there is a cameraman out there. Now were all ground pounders and dirt slingers. And this guy [Westmoreland] stands there, oblivious of all of us, and the aide takes his cape and drapes it over his arm and all this sort of thing. Then the aide looks at him and says, ‘Youre ready, opens the door, and the flashbulbs start popping. That was the Westmoreland of later years.”2
Fortunately the historical record of Westmorelands life is extensive and rich, in part because from his early days he himself made extraordinary efforts to create and preserve it. What it reveals is a man devoted to his profession, and to his own rise in that profession, single-minded in his determination to accomplish the mission as he understands it, skillful in cultivating those who could be helpful to him, faithful in his marriage and loyal to his family, often perceptive in his choice of key associates, limited in his understanding of complex situations, entirely dependent on conventional solutions, and willing to shade or misremember or deny the record when his perceived interests were at risk.
Westmorelands strengths eventually propelled him to a level beyond his understanding and abilities. The results were tragic, not just for him but for the Army and the nation he served, and most of all of course for the South Vietnamese, who sacrificed all and lost all.
William Childs Westmoreland was born on 26 March 1914 in the village of Saxon in Spartanburg County, South Carolina, the son of the textile mill manager James Ripley Westmoreland and his wife, Eugenia Childs Westmoreland. In later years Westmoreland recalled that he “was born in the South during which time Robert E. Lee was on the same level as Jesus Christ.” His ancestral roots extended back four generations within South Carolina.
His father was well connected politically in the state, his friends including James Byrnes and Strom Thurmond. In the family the son was called by his middle name, Childs, his mothers maiden name. His only sibling was a younger sister, Margaret. Westmoreland described his mother as “extremely religious” and his father as “quite conservative,” a man who “didnt take too many chances.” But his father, he recalled, “influenced my life more than any other individual.”1
Later Westmorelands son-in-law would say of Westmoreland that “he was raised very, very stiff. His father would turn his head away and let his son peck him on the cheek.” Even so, he was clearly the favorite. “Your Dad never thought women ever amounted to much in the social scale,” a spinster friend of the family wrote to Westmoreland some years later. “I think hes mellowed some with age, but he gave Margaret a hard time when she was growing up.” For her part, Margaret affirmed that observation: “My brother was my fathers life. He was the perfect one. He could do no wrong.”
His father, said Westmoreland, “taught me the fundamentals of boxing and I learned to lead with a left, keep the opponent at a distance and take advantage of my right when there was an opening.” Later, in Vietnam, Westmoreland would use a boxing analogy to describe his tactical approach to conduct of the war. Apparently he talked a better game than he took into the ring, however, for he never mentioned the summer at Camp Pinnacle in North Carolinas Blue Ridge Mountains when he was matched up against another camper named Harold Cohen. “I landed a blow to his Adams apple and knocked him cold,” remembered Cohen. “I thought Id killed him.”
Westmoreland recalled that during his school days his favorite book was “The Boy Scout Manual” (Handbook for Boys). At fifteen he became an Eagle Scout in Troop 1, Spartanburg, the second member of that troop to attain the highest rank in Scouting. That same year he took part in the 1929 World Scout Jamboree at Arrowe Park in Birkenhead, England. There, fifty thousand Scouts from many different nations assembled for the Jamboree. Scouting was still a pretty new thing, having been established in England just twenty-one years earlier, and this was just the third World Jamboree. Scouts paraded before Sir Robert Baden-Powell, Scoutings founder, and the Prince of Wales and, as recorded by Westmoreland in his journal, heard a sermon by “the Arch Bishop of Canelberry.” Westmoreland recalled the fun they had exchanging items of uniform, buttons, and badges, and that he himself acquired a Scottish kilt, wearing it into Edinburgh after the Jamboree. They climbed the nearest mountain where, said Westmoreland, “There was a swell wind up there and very cool with kilts on.”
Among his fellow Scouts back in Spartanburg Westmoreland made some lifelong friends, particularly Conrad Cleveland, who years later would be best man at his wedding and then, long after that, an important figure in Westmorelands South Carolina gubernatorial campaign.
Troop 1 was sponsored by the Episcopal Church of the Advent in Spartanburg, where the Westmorelands also attended worship services. They would drive up on Sunday mornings in the familys old Franklin automobile, then take their customary seats on the right-hand aisle. According to a friend who also attended these services, Dr. W.H.K. Pendleton, the rector, “always said that if the Westmorelands could be there on time, rain or shine, all the way from Pacolet, the rest of us could be too!”
Westmoreland graduated in 1931 from Spartanburg High School, where he was senior class president. Remembered one of his schoolmates, “In spite of the Great Depression, we had a rather isolated, comfortable and secure world in which to grow up.”
Years after his retirement, Westmoreland was a speaker at the hundredth anniversary celebration of the small village where he had grown up. He recalled the challenging times the region had seen. The last mill had now closed, leaving something of a ghost town, and Westmoreland confided that he himself had also experienced hard times. “My years away have been fraught with challenges, frustrations, and sadness,” he said. “As is frequently the case in life, some jobs have been thankless and some tasks without solution.”
After high school Westmoreland spent a year at The Citadel, the Military College of South Carolina, where his father had graduated in 1900 and was later for many years Chairman of the Board of Visitors. During this year there began a robust correspondence between Westmoreland and his father, who coached his son on many subjects, often including spelling. In one note he went out of his way to denigrate Margaret. She “is doing very poorly at Ashley Hall and it is a source of great disappointment to us,” he wrote. “I am worried as to whether she can do and will not or simply cant do. It is a great source of satisfaction that we have no worry about you.”
While he was at The Citadel, an appointment to the United States Military Academy became available, and in 1932 he entered that institution, appointed by Senator James F. Byrnes (who had also been his Sunday School teacher).2 When word came of Westmorelands acceptance, his father wrote to him: “You are all set now to make your entire life for yourself and it is up to you.” He signed the letter “Wawa,” his childrens pet name for their father.
Westmoreland had wanted to go to the Naval Academy, but Byrnes counseled that the better choice for him would be West Point, which had “a much broader, less technically oriented curriculum.” Westmoreland reported his decision to leave The Citadel and go north to West Point to his Confederate great-uncle, who had fought in the Civil War: “Uncle White, Im going to the same damn school that Sherman and Grant attended.” His uncle was reassuring: “Never you mind, son, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson went there, too.”3
Westmoreland continued to receive encouraging letters from his father, including one dated 2 August 1932, perhaps a month after the son had entered the Military Academy: “You do not know [how] happy it makes us all to know that you are making good. Even the small boys and the negroes are interested and proud of it.”
Taken altogether, these letters constitute a remarkable record of a fathers affection and concern for his only son. “When you need anything write me and I will send it to you. There is nothing too good for you.” It was also clear that he was deeply missed. “You may feel that you are a long way from home,” wrote his father in one of the first letters sent to West Point. “We feel that you are but we talk about you about half our time.”
At West Point Westmoreland underwent a second stringent plebe year, made even more difficult by a different kind of communication from home, endless letters of admonition from his father stressing that he simply had to pass the academic courses, since by now, in the depths of the depression and with his sister also nearing college age, the family could not afford to send him to school elsewhere. “Be sure and send me your marks every week because I have a little book in which I keep them. I am also keeping your class standing in the same book,” wrote his father.4
So incessant was this barrage that in one month alone, December of 1932, Westmoreland received twenty-six missives from his father, twice including two written on the same day. In one of these letters his father unhelpfully observed: “English seems to be your weakest spot. No doubt this comes about from your lack of reading as you grew up.” Clearly Westmoreland did not deserve this relentless pressure, as he consistently maintained a respectable academic record, standing 71 of 328 at the end of his first year. His overall class ranking dropped in each successive year, but at graduation he still stood 112 of 276 in general order of merit, helped by his top military rank but dragged down by economics and government, in which he stood near the bottom of the class.
Later Westmoreland told an interviewer that as a cadet he never walked the area (a punishment for violations of regulations). He received only one major penalty, six demerits and twenty confinements during his yearling year for possession of an unauthorized radio. As for dating, he said, “I was playing the field, so to speak.” Little evidence of that remains to posterity. Wrote his first biographer, Ernest Furgurson: “Westy was so busy with his duties that he did not bother to invite a date to the graduation hop.”
He tried several varsity sports (not lettering in any), and was Superintendent of the Cadet Sunday School Teachers and vice president of his class.
In his final year at the Military Academy Westmoreland was named First Captain, the senior cadet in military rank—a high honor. His military bearing had undoubtedly been a factor in his selection. He stood five feet eleven inches tall, trim and ramrod straight, with a strong nose, prominent eyebrows, and jutting chin, his handsome countenance enhanced rather than marred by a long scar on the left side of his face, the result of going through the windshield of his fathers car in a head-on collision when he was a youngster.
The First Captain at West Point is a genuine cadet celebrity, and properly so. Everyone in the Corps knows who he is, how he looks, what he does. Westmoreland made a fine impression on his classmates, even as a plebe being given the nickname “Chief” by a fellow plebe who viewed him (correctly, as it turned out) as a future Chief of Staff of the Army. It was Ted Clifton, himself later a major general and White House aide, who tagged Westmoreland with the nickname although, he later admitted, “To be honest about it, I hardly knew what the Chief of Staff was in those days.” What he did know, or believed, was that Westmoreland was destined for big things in the years ahead.
Apparently Clifton wasnt the only one who held that view. Brigadier General Sam Goodwin later wrote to Westmoreland, after both of them had retired from active duty, to say: “Certainly you know that one of the legends you left at West Point in 1936, a legend repeated to the plebes who were admitted three weeks after you graduated [Goodwins Class of 1940]: You as First Captain had announced that you would be the Chief of Staff of the Army.”
Westmoreland provided “Advice from the First Captain” for publication in Bugle Notes, the handbook of advice and information issued to all plebes. “By keeping duty foremost in your mind at all times and on all occasions,” he wrote, “you can not fail to develop the most that is in yourself, and to serve West Point and your country in a manner of which you, the Corps, and your country will be justly proud.”
Surprisingly for a First Captain, in that senior year Westmoreland amassed a large number of demerits, forty-eight in all (more than he had accrued as a plebe), for such infractions as “giving the command of execution on the wrong beat” while marching and “causing cadet officers and guidon bearers to march out of step by reason of poorly timed command of execution at parade.” As a result, in his senior year he ranked eighty-second in the class in conduct.
If his mother is to be believed, Westmoreland somehow escaped punishment for yet another parade-related transgression. She was visiting West Point once, she recalled, when her son forgot his sword for a dress parade. But, she told an interviewer, “her cadet son was able to maneuver so expertly while marching that no one noticed.” This seemed highly unlikely, but hearsay evidence from Major General Clay Buckingham, Class of 1949, suggested its accuracy. “One of the stories circulating about him [Westmoreland] back then,” said Buckingham, “was about the time when he, as First Captain, led the graduation parade for his class. Apparently in his rush to get ready, he had forgotten to put his sword in its sheath. Recognizing this only after he had gotten out on the Plain in front of thousands, he went through the entire ceremony making all the correct motions without his sword. No one in the audience noticed, but some of his classmates did notice and wouldnt let him forget it.” Classmate Major General Gordon H. Austin later confirmed the accuracy of that account. He did not see the episode himself, he said, since he had been marching in one of the rear ranks, “but later everyone talked about it.”
Despite such episodes, Westmoreland proved himself a fitting First Captain: dutiful, dedicated, capable if not brilliant, ambitious if not especially social, a fathers pride, a model cadet leader. In West Points yearbook Westmorelands write-up was admiring: “A fine soldier and true friend is Westy. Modest, generous, tolerant, and possessing a good sense of humor, Westy has made many friends. His executive ability, conscientiousness, high ideals, good judgment and common sense, and his fearless determination—just glance at that chin!—have well fitted him for the position he has held as leader of our class, and as First Captain of the Corps.”
In Westmorelands class was Benjamin O. Davis Jr., a black who would later become a high-ranking general officer. As a cadet he had been ostracized because of his race. A fellow officer later wrote to Westmoreland about this, saying, “We and those senior to us in the military have much to be ashamed about in those early years of our service.” Westmoreland responded that Davis “was a victim of the times.” This infuriated his correspondent, who shot back: “That he was. But he was also the victim of individual acts of thoughtlessness, of cruelty, and of cowardice for which individuals ought to answer in this life, and for which, according to our Christian faith, they will assuredly have to answer later.”5
Another graduate, bringing the matter much closer to home, wrote to Westmoreland about how Davis “was inhumanely discriminated against throughout his cadet days with the silencing and its many peripheral consequences. In Daviss final year at West Point,” he reminded Westmoreland, “that discrimination was sustained under your leadership as first captain. . . . I therefore urge you most strongly to issue a public apology to General Davis on behalf of our Army and the United States Military Academy.” Westmoreland called that officer and told him that his “hands were tied,” that the silence had been imposed on Davis and there was nothing he could do about it.6
There have been, over the years, a few West Point classes that stand out from the rest. Preeminent was 1915, the class of Eisenhower, Bradley, and other luminaries, with nearly 35 percent of the class becoming general officers. The Class of 1933 (which led the Corps during Westmorelands plebe year) achieved over 24 percent generals. And Westmorelands Class of 1936 also turned out to be one of West Points most distinguished. It produced six four-star generals, seven three-stars, and sixty generals in all, representing nearly 22 percent of the class. Over 92 percent of the class served to retirement (or died while on active duty), a remarkable example of duty performed. For such records to be achieved, of course, the times had to be right—a big war coming up soon after graduation, with fast early promotions, combat experience, professional reputations established early on—and then, also very important, the ability to adjust to peacetime service until the next war came along.7
On Friday, 12 June, the Class of 1936—276 strong—graduated and was commissioned. General of the Armies John J. Pershing presented the graduation address. Westmoreland, who on behalf of his class had petitioned the Superintendent to invite Pershing as the speaker, was somewhat disappointed in the outcome, later describing Pershing as “an elderly man” whose address “was not delivered with any fire or enthusiasm.” But at least Pershing had said, gratifyingly, that the Corps marched well.
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