CHARLESTON, South Carolina (AP) — Retired Gen. William Westmoreland, who commanded American troops in Vietnam — the nation’s longest conflict and the only war America lost — died Monday night. He was 91.
Westmoreland died of natural causes at Bishop Gadsden retirement home, where he had lived with his wife for several years, said his son, James Ripley Westmoreland.
The silver-haired, jut-jawed officer, who rose through the ranks quickly in Europe during World War II and later became superintendent of West Point, contended the United States did not lose the conflict in Southeast Asia.
“It’s more accurate to say our country did not fulfill its commitment to South Vietnam,” he said. “By virtue of Vietnam, the U.S. held the line for 10 years and stopped the dominoes from falling.”
As commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam from 1964 to 1968, Westmoreland oversaw the introduction of ground troops in Vietnam and a dramatic increase in the number of U.S. troops there.
American support for the war suffered a tremendous blow near the end of Westmoreland’s tenure when enemy forces attacked several cities and towns throughout South Vietnam in what is known as the Tet Offensive in 1968. Though Westmoreland fought off the attacks, the American public remained stunned that the enemy had gained access to the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, even if only for a few hours.
After the event, President Lyndon Johnson limited further increases in troops; Westmoreland was recalled to Washington to serve as the U.S. Army Chief of Staff after asking for reinforcements in response to the attacks.
Westmoreland would later say he did not know how history would deal with him.
“Few people have a field command as long as I did,” he said. “They put me over there and they forgot about me. But I was there seven days a week, working 14 to 16 hours a day.
“I have no apologies, no regrets. I gave my very best efforts,” he added. “I’ve been hung in effigy. I’ve been spat upon. You just have to let those things bounce off.”
Later, after many of the wounds caused by the divisive conflict began to heal, Westmoreland led thousands of his comrades in the November 1982 veterans march in Washington to dedicate the Vietnam War Memorial.
He called it “one of the most emotional and proudest experiences of my life.”
A colonel by age 30
William Childs Westmoreland was born near Spartanburg, South Carolina, on March 26, 1914, into a banking and textile family.
He was an Eagle Scout and attended The Citadel for a year before transferring to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He graduated in 1936 and, during his senior year, held the highest command position in the cadet corps.
Westmoreland saw action in North Africa, Sicily and Europe during World War II. He attained the rank of colonel by the time he was 30.
As commander of the 34th Field Artillery Battalion fighting German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, he earned the loyalty and respect of his troops for joining in the thick of battle rather than remaining behind the lines at a command post.
He was promoted to brigadier general during service in the Korean War and later served in the Pentagon under Army Chief of Staff Maxwell Taylor.
Westmoreland became the superintendent of West Point in 1960 and, by 1964, was a three-star general commanding American troops in Vietnam.
Life after Vietnam
After his tour in Vietnam, Westmoreland was promoted to Army chief of staff. He retired from active duty in 1972 but he continued to lecture and participate in veterans’ activities.
Westmoreland was married to the former Katherine “Kitzy” Van Deusen and the couple had three children.
A decade after his retirement, Westmoreland fought another battle involving Vietnam.
In 1982, he filed a $120 million lawsuit against CBS over a documentary “The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception,” which implied he had deceived President Johnson and the public about enemy troop strength in Vietnam.
At the time, Westmoreland said the question “is not about whether the war in Vietnam was right or wrong, but whether in our land a television network can rob an honorable man of his reputation.”
After an 18-week trial in New York, the case was settled shortly before it was to go to the jury.
The settlement was characteristic of the general’s ambivalent relationship with the press.
In his autobiography, “A Soldier Reports,” Westmoreland wrote that in Vietnam, while he “tried to avoid any vendetta against the press,” he sometimes resented the time he had to spend correcting “errors, misinterpretations, judgments and falsehoods” contained in news reports.
But he wrote that the press is “such a bulwark of the American system, that it is well to tolerate some mistakes and derelictions to make every effort to assure that total freedom and independence continue to exist.”
Frequent speaker at veterans’ gatherings
In later years, Westmoreland often spoke to Vietnam veterans’ groups, accepting invitations to visit veterans’ groups in all 50 states, his son “Rip” Westmoreland said.
“That became, in effect, his raison d’etre,” the son recalled. “He did have a point of view on Vietnam but he did not speak about that. He was not out there trying to justify anything. He was there looking at the veterans with his wonderful presence.
Survivors include his wife, son and two daughters, Katherine and Margaret.
Westmoreland will be buried in West Point, as he wished, his son said. A funeral will be held in Charleston.