Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,304

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,304


This is the grave of William Westmoreland.

Born in Spartanburg, South Carolina in 1914, Westmoreland grew up well-off in the upcountry of that state, with his family money in textiles and banking. It was the textile industry that built up that area’s economic elite, with the exploitation of the region’s white working class at is core. Westmoreland was a big Eagle Scout and was on his way to the military from the time he was a kid. He went to West Point because James Byrnes was close to his family and the latter made it happen.

Westmoreland graduated in 1936 and became an artillery officer. He became a first lieutenant in 1939. In World War II, he was with the 34th Field Artillery Battalion in the 9th Infantry. He was in Sicily and then Italy, France, and Germany. He was already a fast riser, becoming the 9th Chief of Staff in 1944. After the war, he trained as a paratrooper, which is an interesting choice for a guy on the rise, though maybe I am just influenced by the narrative around Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. But he wanted to command paratroopers and became the commander of the 504th Parachute Infantry in the 82nd Airborne. He also became Chief of Staff for the 82nd Airborne in 1947. He also taught at the Army War College in 1950, teaching there until 1952. Then he went to Korea and commanded the 187th Airborne Regimental Combat Team.

Westmoreland was very interested in corporate governance. He, like his future boss Robert McNamara, saw the corporate structure as the way to run the university. He did courses at Harvard Business School to do more and he rose fast up the chain of command in the internal politics of the military between Korea and Vietnam. This led to him being the Superintendent at West Point from 1960 to 1963 and then getting the big promotion to lieutenant general in 1963.

This leads us to Vietnam.

I don’t think that another commanding general would have led to a drastically different result in Vietnam. The problem was far more systemic. It was just a terrible idea. The U.S. had no understanding of what they were getting into. They didn’t understand Vietnam period. They promoted Ngo Dinh Diem because the Kennedys and Mike Mansfield felt comfortable with him since was Catholic and thus “one of us.” In a society where 10% of the nation is Catholic and those mostly the nation’s elites, this was just so short-sighted to make the whole thing pretty hopeless.

That said, Westmoreland really didn’t do anyone any favors. There are many of you that have greater knowledge of the real military history of Vietnam than I do, so I assume the comments will be of more value than what I am saying here. Westmoreland first went to Vietnam in 1963 and became director of Military Assistance Command, Vietnam the next year. McNamara loved Westmoreland and promoted him big time with Kennedy and then Johnson. An America that wanted to kick some ass in Vietnam put so much faith in him too. Time named Westmoreland Man of the Year in 1965, which LOL. Time also promoted him as a candidate for the Republicans in the 1968 presidential election. Hard to imagine he could have been worse than Nixon!

Westmoreland was promoted Chief of Staff for the Army in 1968, the same year that American troops in Vietnam reached 535,000. Turns out all that corporate structure did absolutely nothing to help win the war in Vietnam. Who could have known! He believed that the U.S. had so much firepower and so much logistical superiority that if necessary, the nation could win in a war of attrition. Nope! He constantly lobbied Congress and the public about “resolve,” but of course this wasn’t the issue. He really wanted to expand the war into Cambodia and Laos. LBJ was very uncomfortable with this. He kept talking about “positive indicators” and all this other bullshit. But it was all lies and the Tet Offensive proved it, even if that was militarily disastrous for the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong.

Westmoreland was kicked upstairs when he got the Chief of Staff job. Harold Johnson replaced him as commanding in Vietnam. It really wasn’t a punishment for his failures, but the media saw it that way. Westmoreland finally began seeing that things were messed up after My Lai came out. He produced a report called Study on Military Professionalism that examined just what the hell had happened in Vietnam and had important recommendations. But Westmoreland didn’t want to release it to the public and it wasn’t until after his retirement in 1972.

Westmoreland did have political ambitions and ran for governor of South Carolina as a Republican in 1974, but he lost. He wrote an autobiography that no one cared about in 1975. He was also hot with defending his reputation. When CBS produced a 1982 documentary claiming that Westmoreland had intentionally misled about the public about the strength of the Viet Cong, Westmoreland sued for libel. In fact, this so depressed Mike Wallace, who was the lead in the documentary, that he was hospitalized for depression. That said, Westmoreland had no case. He was just pissed off.

In fact, that was much of Westmoreland’s remaining life. He promoted himself, worked with veterans groups, and denigrated the Vietnamese, even though they had kicked his ass. But they didn’t kick his ass the way he respected. The guerilla warfare of the VC and North Vietnamese was something he saw as chump change. He had no respect for it or for the generals who were willing to lose so many men doing it. He just never understood what the war was really about for them. For the entire rest of his life, Westmoreland refused to admit that the U.S. had lost the war. He just believed the nation had lost the resolve. OK Bill, whatever.

Westmoreland died in 2005. He was 91 years old.

William Westmoreland is buried in the U.S. Military Academy Post Cemetery, West Point, New York.

If you would like this series to visit other people who helped bork up the Vietnam War, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Dean Rusk is in Athens, Georgia and Maxwell Taylor is in Arlington. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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