General William Westmoreland Reports on the Vietnam War

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 General William Westmoreland press conference outside the White House, April 7, 1968.

Dismissing the North Vietnamese government's "absurd claims of victory," General William Westmoreland assures the public that triumph in Vietnam is close at hand. This address, given before the American Newspaper Publishers Association on April 24, 1967, finds the commander of US forces dealing with a friendly, appreciative crowd. His rosy picture of the conflict is allowed to stand largely unchallenged during the subsequent Q&A. What success the Viet Cong have achieved is not military but "a clever contribution of psychological and political warfare both here and abroad." We are facing in Vietnam not a civil war but "massive external aggression." In all areas, US and South Vietnamese forces are gaining ground. The only reason for the enemy's ferocious determination is a ruthless program of "political indoctrination," despite which, many of them are now defecting. The general concludes by extolling the virtues of the US Army and assures the nation's publishers that he is "confident of victory." The disaster of Tet, and Lyndon Johnson's subsequent realization that the war could not, in fact, be won, looms less than a year off.   

William Westmoreland was born in 1914. A graduate of West Point, he served in World War II and Korea before being appointed in 1964 to lead US forces in Vietnam. His command was marked by a sharp escalation in a war that, until then, the Army had tried to play more of an advisory role. As The Economist described it:

General Westmoreland's tactics were simple: take the war to the enemy, and kill him faster than he could be replaced. Where possible, apply overwhelming, stunning force. “A great country”, he liked to say, quoting the Duke of Wellington, “cannot wage a little war.”

But such a win-at-all-costs strategy ran afoul of larger, more global considerations. Johnson did not wish to risk dragging China and the USSR into the conflict. Increased use of draftees sparked domestic protests and civil unrest. (Indeed, the New York Times reported that in front of the Waldorf-Astoria, where this talk was held, protestors were burning Westmoreland in effigy.) These factors remained outside the narrow scope of a military commander. The novelist Ward Just, himself a former correspondent in Saigon, reviewed Westmoreland's book, A Soldier Reports, in the New York Times, and lamented:

Throughout this sad and defensive memoir there is an air of confusion, bewilderment and pain. And no wonder. Westmoreland was not in charge, though he was very much the man out front. From the evidence presented here, he did not himself understand what the American role was meant to be -- he did not see the war as essentially a political struggle, and his descriptions of the development of American strategy and tactics are as chaotic as the strategy and tactics themselves.

Ten months after this address, the Tet Offensive starkly contradicted Westmoreland's overly optimistic view of the war. Although he stubbornly claimed repulsing the near-takeover of the South Vietnamese capitol "a victory," neither the public nor LBJ could stomach such a blinkered view of the conflict. Westmoreland was recalled to Washington and peace negotiations were begun.

In retrospect, with the passions of the time now cooled, Westmoreland can be seen here less the stage villain he was often lampooned as, with his John Wayne demeanor and persistent use of military jargon, and more a familiar, almost tragic figure, the general fighting the previous war. He seems to have no clue that boasting about increased body counts, the many "combat-ready" Republic of South Vietnam troops, and what fine "physical specimens" our soldiers have become, misses the point.  As The Guardian newspaper reported in its obituary:

Westmoreland's main flaw was that he thought that if he confronted the communist forces directly, either on the ground or with his massive airpower, he could simply win by attrition. The communists' death toll was very heavy, and this encouraged the delusion that the war was being won, as Westmoreland could not imagine how relatively small countries like North or South Vietnam could sustain such massive casualties. … As Stanley Karnow, the Vietnam reporter and historian noted: "Westmoreland did not understand - nor did anyone else understand - that there was not a breaking point. Instead of breaking their morale, they were breaking ours."

In later life Westmoreland ran unsuccessfully for governor of South Carolina. In 1982 he sued CBS for a report claiming he had knowingly manipulated figures relating to enemy troop strength. The case was settled with neither side admitting blame.

William Westmoreland died in 2005. 

 

Audio courtesy of the NYC Municipal Archives WNYC Collection.

WNYC archives id: 150001
Municipal archives id: T1140-T1141