(March 26, 1914 – July 18, 2005)
General William C. Westmoreland commanded the U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, from June 1964 to June 1968, and, as the officer in charge of most of the American military assets in Vietnam during that period, he became the principal strategist for the U.S. war effort. Born in South Carolina, he graduated in 1936 from West Point, where he had been commander of the Corps of Cadets. He had an outstanding combat record in World War II and the Korean War, held many important command and staff positions, and was superintendent of West Point when President Kennedy selected him to head MACV. He was an energetic and dedicated but conventional military leader. Despite his communist adversaries’ known skills for irregular warfare and political tactics, he designed an attrition strategy of large unit sweeps and aerial bombardment aimed at regular North Vietnamese and Vietcong units and intended to inflict more losses on his enemies than they could sustain. He requested and received ever-higher numbers of U.S. ground forces until the total exceeded 500,000. He employed these in “search and destroy” operations utilizing helicopter mobility and high-technology weaponry. He paid much less attention to pacification efforts.
Although Westmoreland’s approach inflicted heavy losses on the enemy and he made public claims of progress (often at Washington’s prompting), by the end of 1967 he had, in fact, achieved only a military stalemate, which became apparent in the Tet Offensive in early 1968. His forces in South Vietnam repulsed the surprise enemy attacks, but it was clear that the war was far from over, and its burden on Americans and Vietnamese would only continue. Some military historians have claimed that Westmoreland never received the freedom or resources from Washington he needed for success, but it was also evident that his troops were often just flailing about without any clear plan for victory. Consequently, Johnson turned down his request for 206,000 more troops after Tet and reassigned him as U.S. Army chief of staff. He was succeeded at MACV by his deputy commander, General Creighton Abrams. Westmoreland retired from the army in 1972 and published his memoir in 1976. A 1982 CBS News investigation claimed that he had knowingly misrepresented enemy troop strength to Washington prior to the Tet Offensive. He sued the network for libel, and the case was settled out of court in 1985 with both sides claiming victory.