Born 26 March 1914, near Spartanburg, South Carolina, William Westmoreland went on to fight in most of America’s major areas of conflict during World War Two and the Cold War, and came to prominence during the Vietnam War. He served as Superintendent at West Point, and enjoyed the patronage of two US Presidents. However, by the end of 1968 his reputation was in tatters, and his stock had declined such that the aspiring nominee for the Republican party’s presidential candidate in 1980 refused to sit next to him on a flight for fear that he be tarnished by association with the disgraced former general.
As commander of Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), Westmoreland strongly believed in the policy of attrition, refusing to accept that a small nation such as North Vietnam could absorb huge losses. This belief led him to misinterpret the critical lessons of the war, none more so than the unsuitability of conventional big unit tactics to the jungles of Vietnam. Whilst he rightly pointed to the horrendous casualty figures on the communist side, this ignored the growing casualty lists, and equipment losses on the US side.
The Tet Offensive of 1968 turned out to be the beginning of the end of his military career in Vietnam. After announcing the light at the end of the tunnel in a press conference at the end of 1967, his claims of impending success were shown to be hollow as the North Vietnamese launched their largest campaign of the conflict thus far. Even as Westmoreland emphasized the success of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) and US forces in crushing the offensive, images of Viet Cong (VC) guerrillas in the grounds of the US embassy, and holding out in the South Vietnamese city of Hue only served to undermine his credibility still further.
Militarily, Tet had a dramatic impact on America’s approach to the war. The US and ARVN victory had come at a high price. Over 3,000 US servicemen died between January and April 1968, and the total number of US soldiers reported killed in Vietnam during the year 1968 was about 14,000, the highest number for any year of the war. Westmoreland’s response was to request 206 000 more troops, believing that the huge losses suffered by the VC had effectively brought them to the brink of defeat and could be finished off with one last push. Later, in 1976, he called the refusal to provide these troops, “the turning point for failure in Vietnam.” In June 1968, Westmoreland was replaced by Creighton Adams, returning to Washington to Chair the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
William Westmoreland died, aged 91, on 18 July 2005.