Derided Westmoreland led losing effort in Vietnam, but still refuses to retreat TATTERED IMAGES

April 28, 1995|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,Sun Staff Writer

Charleston, S.C. -- His gait is slow, almost shuffling, but his carriage is as straight as it ever was, his jaw still chiseled, his gaze imperious. Westy still looks the part of a military leader, a characteristic often noted -- though more and more cynically as time passed -- when he was the commander of the U.S. Army in South Vietnam.

Nearly a quarter-century into his retirement and to his weary surprise, William Childs Westmoreland once again finds people are interested in him. Reporters from around the world are calling, seeking his explanation for a war that wrenched his country apart and irrevocably stained his once-lustrous career.

The calls are prompted by Sunday's 20th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, an event General Westmoreland refers to as America's "abandonment" of the South Vietnamese. They are also spurred by the publication of Robert S. McNamara's Vietnam memoir, in which the former defense secretary sharply criticizes General Westmoreland's military strategy.

The darts no longer seem to cause the general rancor. With patience, he repeats the mantra that has been on his lips since his Vietnam tour ended in 1968. "The American military never lost a battle of consequence," he says. "The war was lost politically."

But the general, who once attacked the press for presenting a distorted version of Vietnam ("The war that Americans saw was almost exclusively violent, miserable or controversial," he wrote in his memoirs), and who bitterly sued CBS for libel during his retirement, insists he no longer cares how he is perceived. "I don't know and I don't care," he says. "My philosophy as a professional soldier was to do what I was asked to do by the president, the commander-in-chief, and you don't worry about the political implications of it."

Two decades after Saigon fell to the Communists, the United States is edging closer toward diplomatic recognition of its former enemy. Even so, Americans are still far from coming to terms with a war that was fought both in Asia and at home. The debate over who was responsible for the American debacle in Vietnam has never ceased, nor have arguments about the war's villains and its heroes and who was who.

As the military's most prominent figure during the United States' build-up of troops, William Westmoreland continues to stir passions. To this day, many veterans believe the general was denied his victory by a weak-willed Johnson administration. For far greater numbers, however, he is remembered as yet another American leader who was blind to the realities of Vietnam.

Almost hidden from view in the vestibule of General Westmoreland's stately home is the bust of him commissioned by Time magazine when it named him its Man of the Year for 1965. He was almost certainly the most recognizable military figure in the world then, the handsome, supremely confident symbol of an American army ready to put into action John F. Kennedy's inaugural pledge: "Pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty." They are words the general recites from memory today.

For him, the price of Vietnam was extraordinarily high. Not so high, of course, as that paid by the 58,000 Americans who died there, but devastating indeed for a military commander once seen as a worthy successor to his country's great generals -- Grant, Patton, MacArthur, Eisenhower.

Instead, he left Vietnam with his reputation in tatters, the personification of America's self-delusion in Southeast Asia. Rather than receiving a hero's welcome, upon his return home he found himself being burned in effigy on college campuses.

The acclaim accorded his military predecessors and successors skipped him entirely. Today's military leaders have nothing to do with him. "I'm 81 years old," he says. "I'm a has-been. I mean, Washington doesn't give a damn what I think, and understandably so."

A Charleston friend, William Morrison, says that General Westmoreland's family has always been saddened that he never received what they regarded as his public due. As for the general himself, "I've never heard him complain about that," says Mr. Morrison, a lawyer, "but I'm sure he must feel he was denied his place in the sun."

Today, even the general's sharpest critics say it is unfair to blame any one person, and particularly a military figure, for so encompassing a tragedy as Vietnam. But that hasn't relieved General Westmoreland of a taint that will likely follow him through history.

"The tragedy here is that he was a very decent man who got into a very difficult war and didn't understand it," says David Halberstam, whose book, "The Best and the Brightest," chronicles America's misjudgments in Vietnam. "I regard him as a tragic figure, a man you just want to look away from."

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