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.
Westmoreland’s 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 don’t happen to be a fan of General Westmoreland’s,” said Johnson. “I don’t think I ever was, and I certainly didn’t 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.”
Westmoreland’s 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. It’s 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 we’re 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, ‘You’re ready,’ opens the door, and the flashbulbs start popping. That was the Westmoreland of later years.”2
Fortunately the historical record of Westmoreland’s 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.
Westmoreland’s 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 mother’s 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 “didn’t take too many chances.” But his father, he recalled, “influenced my life more than any other individual.”1
Later Westmoreland’s 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 he’s 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 father’s 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 Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains when he was matched up against another camper named Harold Cohen. “I landed a blow to his Adam’s apple and knocked him cold,” remembered Cohen. “I thought I’d killed him.”
Westmoreland recalled that during his school days his f...