Born in South Carolina in 1914, General William Westmoreland was commander of the U.S. Military Assistance Command in Vietnam. Initially, Westmoreland was a popular figure, becoming a full four-star general and being named TIME magazine's "Man of the Year" in 1965, but the bitter legacy of his role in the war haunted him, as the number of U.S. troops engaged grew from less than 20,000 to approximately 500,000, and victory was elusive. He died in South Carolina in 2005.
William Childs Westmoreland was born on March 26, 1914, near Spartanburg, South Carolina. Before his name became synonymous with the Vietnam War, William Westmoreland was a decorated soldier who fought in World War II and the Korean War. He came from a long line of soldiers, dating back to the American Revolutionary War. After graduating from high school, Westmoreland attended The Citadel, The Military College of South Carolina. He then received an appointment to attend the elite United States Military Academy at West Point, graduating in 1936.
Commissioned as a second lieutenant, Westmoreland was posted at Fort Sill in Oklahoma. He steadily rose up the ranks, serving at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii and Fort Bragg in North Carolina before traveling overseas to see combat during World War II in 1942. First, Westmoreland went to North Africa with the 34th Field Artillery Battalion, 9th Infantry Division, where he served as a battalion commander for military operations in Tunisia. His battalion then moved to the European theater, fighting in Sicily, Italy. Westmoreland continued to serve in Europe, eventually becoming the chief of staff for his division.
Climbing Military Ranks
After the war, Westmoreland continued his ascent in the military hierarchy, becoming a major in 1948 and lieutenant colonel in 1952. That same year, he commanded the 187th Airborne Regimental Team in Korea, but he returned stateside in late 1953 to serve at the Pentagon where he held several posts. In 1960, Westmoreland became the superintendent at West Point.
In 1963, Westmoreland once again went abroad—this time to Vietnam. At he worked with U.S. military advisers who were assisting the forces of the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese government in their conflict against the communist North Vietnamese. After U.S. destroyers were allegedly attacked by the North Vietnamese in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson authorized an escalation of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Westmoreland soon became the commander of the United States Military Assistance Command. Initially he was a popular figure, becoming a full four-star general and being named TIME magazine's "Man of the Year" in 1965.
The U.S. military fought against the North Vietnamese by heavily bombing important targets in the north. It also fought the Viet Cong, a communist militant group supported by the North Vietnamese. Westmoreland's military strategy has widely been described as a war of attrition, quickly diminishing the number of opposing troops before replacements could be found. As a result, success in the conflict was often measured by the number of enemy troops killed. But over time, the public became skeptical of the U.S. Army's reports regarding the Vietcong body count. Many were also concerned about the growing number of American casualties. Westmoreland was called back to the United States in 1967 to report on the war before Congress. He told Congress that with enough support "we will prevail ... over the Communist aggressor," according to a TIME magazine article published at the time. But support for the war and Westmoreland on the home front was already waning.
The South Vietnamese forces and the U.S. military troops were dealt a surprising blow duing Tet, the lunar New Year festival, in 1968. Vietcong troops attacked cities and sites throughout South Vietnam, taking over several large cities and provincial capitals. News coverage of battles in Saigon and Hue exposed the people at home to the brutal fighting in Vietnam. While U.S. and South Vietnamese troops eventually drove them out, the conflict was the last straw for many Americans. Concern continued to grow about the United States' involvement in what appeared to be an unwinnable war.
Westmoreland remained focused on achieving victory despite the shifting public and political opinions regarding the war. Weeks after the Tet Offensive, he requested more than 200,000 additional troops be sent to Vietnam. President Lyndon B. Johnson put off his request and eventually decided to call Westmoreland back to the United States to serve as chief of staff for the U.S. Army. During his time in Vietnam, the number of U.S. troops engaged in the conflict grew from less than 20,000 to approximately 500,000.
Retirement and Legacy
After retiring from the military in 1972, Westmoreland moved to Charleston, South Carolina, and spent some of his time as a public speaker. Still experiencing the bitter legacy of his role in the Vietnam War, he often encountered protesters at his events. Westmoreland also made an unsuccessful run for governor in 1974 and published an autobiography entitled A Soldier Reports in 1976.
In 1982, Westmoreland sued CBS News for libel over the documentary, The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception, which indicated that he had help deceive the American people about the strength of enemy forces in Vietnam. The conflicting reports indicate that the case was either settled out of court or that Westmoreland withdrew the suit.
Despite the controversy that surrounded him, Westmoreland remained dedicated to the soliders who served under him. He led a group of veterans to the ceremony for the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C., in 1982, and marched with thousands of veterans in Chicago's Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Parade in 1986.
William Westmoreland died on July 18, 2005, at a retirement home in Charleston, South Carolina, at the age of 91. He had been married to his wife Katherine since 1947; the couple had three children together.
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