President Lyndon Johnson chose William Westmoreland, a distinguished veteran of World War II and the Korean War, to command the U.S. Military Assistance Command in Vietnam (MACV) in June 1964. Over the next four years, the general directed much of U.S. military strategy during the Vietnam War, spearheading the buildup of American troops in the region from 16,000 to more than 500,000. His strategy of attrition aimed to inflict heavy losses on North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces using superior U.S. firepower, but resulted in a costly stalemate by late 1967. The enemy’s ambitious Tet Offensive in early 1968 cast serious doubt on Westmoreland’s claims of progress in the war effort, even as he called for some 200,000 more troops.
In June, President Johnson replaced Westmoreland in command of the MACV. Back in the United States, Westmoreland fought off criticisms of his conduct of the war (including a libel lawsuit against CBS News) and became a dedicated supporter of Vietnam veterans.
Westmoreland’s Early Life and Military Career
William Westmoreland was born in 1914 near Spartanburg, South Carolina, into a family whose ancestors fought in the Revolutionary War and served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. He earned an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and graduated in 1936; his fellow cadets called him “Westy.” As a young field officer, Westmoreland met and married Katherine Van Deusen, and the couple went on to have three children.
During World War II, Westmoreland fought courageously with a battalion in North Africa and Sicily, and was chief of staff of the U.S. Army’s Ninth Division when it entered Germany in 1944. He also served in the Korean War, as commander of the 187th Regimental Combat Team. In 1955, the 42-year-old Westmoreland was promoted to major general, becoming the youngest man to have achieved that rank in the U.S. Army. He was given command of the 101st Airborne Division in 1958 and became superintendent of West Point two years later. A few months after the Kennedy assassination, newly inaugurated President Lyndon Johnson chose Westmoreland to go to Vietnam as deputy to General Paul Harkins, then head of the U.S. Military Assistance Command in Vietnam (MACV). In June 1964, he became a full four-star general, and replaced Harkins in command of U.S. forces in Vietnam.
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Westmoreland and the Strategy of Attrition
When Westmoreland arrived in Vietnam in 1964, the United States had some 16,000 troops in the region. He immediately advocated increasing the U.S. military presence in South Vietnam, arguing that escalation was vital to preventing the unstable Saigon government from collapse under the threat from Communist North Vietnamese (NVA) and National Liberation Front (NLF) forces (derisively known as Viet Cong). The military buildup began in earnest after North Vietnamese gunboats attacked American destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin in August 1964, and the number of U.S. ground troops in Vietnam would eventually top 500,000.
Beginning in 1965, Westmoreland sent large numbers of soldiers on “search and destroy” operations using helicopters and high-tech weapons to find and kill Viet Cong forces. Westmoreland’s strategy in Vietnam depended on the superiority of U.S. firepower, including intensive aerial bombardments of regular enemy units. The goal was not to seize and hold territory, but to inflict more losses than the Communist forces could sustain. Westmoreland’s “war of attrition” overlooked the enemy’s skill for irregular or guerrilla warfare and drastically underestimated the nationalist zeal and will to fight that motivated North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces. Like many American officials, Westmoreland generally failed to see the North Vietnamese war effort for what it was–a passionate nationalist struggle–and viewed Ho Chi Minh and his supporters as mere puppets controlled by Communist giants China and Russia.
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Westmoreland and the Impact of Tet Offensive
In September 1967, when North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces began a series of attacks on American garrisons (notably the Marine base at Khe Sanh). Westmoreland saw this as a positive development, as the enemy was finally engaging in open combat. After U.S. and South Vietnamese forces inflicted heavy losses, including some 90,000 killed among NVA and NLF forces, Westmoreland reported to Johnson that the end of the war was in sight, as the Communists could not possibly replace the men they had lost. But the ambitious Tet Offensive, a coordinated series of fierce attacks on more than 100 cities and towns in South Vietnam that on January 31, 1968 (the lunar new year) disproved Westmoreland’s claims of progress. Though U.S. and South Vietnamese forces managed to repel the Tet attacks, it was clear the war was far from over.
With antiwar sentiment growing on the home front, the Johnson administration lost confidence in Westmoreland’s strategy of attrition and its chances for victory in Vietnam. The beleaguered president turned down Westmoreland’s request for some 200,000 more troops and recalled him to Washington to serve as the U.S. Army’s chief of staff. General Creighton W. Abrams, Westmoreland’s deputy commander, replaced him as head of the MACV.
Westmoreland’s Post-Vietnam Life and Career
Westmoreland’s influence was limited in the administration of Richard Nixon, and he resigned from the U.S. Army in 1972. He returned to South Carolina, where he ran unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination for governor in 1974. In 1976, the general published his memoir, A Soldier Reports. After a CBS News documentary, "The Uncounted Enemy," claimed that Westmoreland had knowingly misrepresented enemy troop strength prior to the Tet Offensive, Westmoreland filed a $120 million libel lawsuit against the news network in 1982. He eventually dropped the suit, with both sides claiming victory.
In the years following the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, Westmoreland became a noted public supporter of Vietnam veterans, leading a march to the Vietnam Memorial in 1982 and a gathering of some 200,000 veterans in Chicago in 1986. William Westmoreland died in 2005, at the age of 91.