Commander led U.S. troops during divisive Vietnam War

Gen William Westmoreland : 1914-2005

July 19, 2005|By Eric Malnic | Eric Malnic,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Gen. William Westmoreland, the World War II hero who was later vilified for his leadership of the United States' failed war in Vietnam, died last night in Charleston, S.C. He was 91.

General Westmoreland died of natural causes at Bishop Gadsden retirement home, his son, James Ripley Westmoreland told the Associated Press.

He was chief of his fellow cadets at West Point; the decorated leader of a unit that helped turn back German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel in North Africa; a heralded artillery officer in the European campaign that forced Germany to its knees; a commander of the heralded 101st Airborne Division; superintendent of West Point and, finally, the Army's chief of staff.

His ultimate field command - leader of the U.S. forces in Vietnam from 1964 to 1968 - will be forever marked by disputed claims, tactics and repeated military setbacks, not to mention the more than 46,000 Americans killed in action and the eventual loss of the war.

The strapping young South Carolinian's dedication, hard work and professionalism won him the admiration of his peers at West Point and the respect of the academy's bass. Although his grades were ordinary, his quiet leadership led to his being named first captain of the cadets - the highest rank and honor the academy can bestow on one of its students.

He found himself well positioned for quick career advancement as World War II began heating up. Fort Bragg was an important training center, and General Westmoreland, promoted swiftly to major and then lieutenant colonel, was given command of an artillery battalion that landed in North Africa in December, 1942.

He oversaw extensive combat operations across France. During the final Allied push into Germany, General Westmoreland, by then chief of staff of the 9th Division, helped turn back the Wehrmacht's desperate attempts to retake the Rhine River bridge at Remagen, winning a Bronze Star. A few weeks later, Germany surrendered.

He worried that he was missing the action when war broke out in Korea in 1950. By the time he got there as commander of the 187th Regimental Combat Team in 1952, the war was winding down.

He was promoted to brigadier general in 1953, becoming the youngest general in the Army, not even 40 years of age. He was transferred to the Pentagon, where he was made the top assistant to the Army's chief of staff.

He was promoted to major general and given command of the 101st Airborne Division. Then, in 1960, he was appointed superintendent at West Point. Only MacArthur had gotten the job at a younger age.

On Jan 7, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson named General Westmoreland chief of military operations in Vietnam.

General Westmoreland decided to wage a war of attrition against the communist forces in an attempt to kill them faster than they could be replaced.

Meanwhile, as more Americans kept leaving for Vietnam in uniforms and returning in body bags, the antiwar movement in the United States gathered steam.

On Jan. 31, 1968, the communists launched the Tet offensive. In most cases, their attacks were repelled, but the fighting was fierce and the overwhelming image on U.S. television was of cities in smoldering ruins.

Two months later, a discouraged President Johnson announced he would not seek re-election and said he was bringing General Westmoreland home to be Army chief of staff. General Westmoreland retired from active duty on June 30, 1972.

On Jan. 21, 1982, CBS Television announced it had uncovered "a deliberate plot to fool the American public, the Congress and perhaps the White House into believing we were winning a war that, in fact, we were losing."

In a documentary aired two nights later, the network argued that to show progress in the war, General Westmoreland's command had underestimated enemy troop strength by 50 percent, suppressed information about enemy infiltration and erased computer tapes to hide the deception.

General Westmoreland filed a $120 million libel suit against CBS that went to trial on Oct. 9, 1982. He didn't get any money from CBS, but he did get a statement:

"CBS respects General Westmoreland's long and faithful service to his country and never intended to assert, and does not believe, that General Westmoreland was unpatriotic or disloyal in performing his duties as he saw fit."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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