General William Westmoreland gained fame as the most senior US military leader in the initial phases of the Vietnam War. Westmoreland became ‘Man of the Year’ in ‘Time’ magazine for his leadership in Vietnam though the overall input of what Westmoreland did in the war is still open to discussion.
Westmoreland was born on March 26th 1914 into a prosperous family that lived in South Carolina. In 1936 Westmoreland graduated form America’s most senior army establishment – West Point. He left the academy with the highest rank possible – first captain. During World War Two, Westmoreland commanded artillery units in North Africa and Sicily. During the Korean War, he commanded the 187th Airborne Infantry and went on to command the 101st Airborne Division. Aged just 42, Westmoreland was promoted to major general – the youngest aged officer to reach this rank.
In many senses, Westmoreland would have been typical of many Americans in terms of the way he thought. Few in America would have believed that a nation as powerful as America would have had any problems in defeating the NLF. One had an army based around the most prosperous economy in the world whereas North Vietnam was a third world nation. Victory was only a matter of time, and many in the US military believed that this time span would be short. When it became clear that victory would not be easy, Westmoreland introduced a ‘search and destroy’ policy.
This was a deliberately aggressive policy whereby a US soldier could decide who was NLF and who was not. In fact, the ‘search and destroy’ policy led to many innocent civilians being killed by US troops – though there was always the lingering doubt that they might not have been innocent and that the destruction of the believed NLF-controlled villages was justifiable.
Westmoreland found it difficult to counter the classic guerrilla warfare tactics used by the NLF. Therefore he justified the approach used by the US military in South Vietnam – to the detriment of what was later to be called a ‘hearts and mind’ policy. However as the war progressed, the media began to scrutinise Westmoreland’s strategy more and more. He was openly ridiculed in the media for misleading the President with regards to the way the war was going from the American perspective. He did not have a particularly positive relationship with some areas of the media. Westmoreland later said:
“Vietnam was the first war ever fought without censorship. Without censorship, things can get terribly confused in the public mind.”
Towards the end of 1967, Westmoreland told the President that the defeat of the NLF was only a matter of time as they were now engaging more and more in open combat as opposed to guerrilla warfare.
Fearful of an American Dien Bien Phu, Westmoreland ordered that no military action involving US troops could take place with less than 750 troops. This by itself was almost an admission that the NLF was going to be a lot more difficult to defeat than was first thought of.
The Tet Offensive in January 1968 ended as a failure for the NLF – even Giap himself admitted this. This success for the US should have been to Westmoreland’s credit. However, in the initial days of the attacks the NLF had entered the US Embassy in Saigon and a major radio station had been temporarily taken over. This was a major blow to US pride especially as just a month earlier Westmoreland had announced that the NLF was close to defeat. In1967, the NLF lost possibly as many as 80,000 people in combat and US bombing raids. However, what Westmoreland and US Intelligence had underestimated was the speed with which the NLF could replace their losses.
Shortly after the end of the Tet offensive Westmoreland was replaced as the commander of US forces in South Vietnam. General Creighton Abrams replaced him.
Westmoreland served as Chief of Staff between 1968 and 1972. He retired from the Army in 1972 and made an unsuccessful attempt to involve himself in politics. In 1974, Westmoreland ran for Governor of South Carolina but lost. He continued working in South Carolina especially in the field of education.
William Westmoreland died on July 18th 2005 aged 91.