William Childs Westmoreland died on July 18, 2005 at the age of 91, he was an United States Army general, who most notably commanded U.S. forces during the Vietnam War from 1964 to 1968.
Born in Spartanburg County, South Carolina on March 26, 1914 to Eugenia Talley Childs and James Ripley Westmoreland, his upper middle class family was involved in the local banking and textile industries.
At the age of 15, William became an Eagle Scout at Troop 1 Boy Scouts, and was recipient of the Distinguished Eagle Scout Award and Silver Buffalo from the Boy Scouts of America as a young adult.
After spending a year at The Citadel in 1932 he was appointed to attend the United States Military Academy.
His motive for entering West Point was “to see the world”. During his period of command, both the Battle of Ia Drang (Nov. 1965) and the Tet Offensive (Jan. 1968) were technically US victories, but enemy activity continued to escalate, while the My Lai Massacre caused outrage over the murder of innocent civilians.
By the time he left to become Army chief of staff, US manpower in Vietnam had reached a peak of 535,000.
Westmoreland’s strategy, based on artillery and air power, was tactically successful but politically allowed the enemy to destroy the American public’s support for the war.
In January 1964, he became deputy commander of Military Assistance Command, Vietnam. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara told President Lyndon B. Johnson in April that Westmoreland was “the best we have, without question”.
As the head of the MACV he was known for highly publicized, positive assessments of U.S. military prospects in Vietnam.
However, as time went on, the strengthening of communist combat forces in the South led to regular requests for increases in U.S. troop strength, from 16,000 when he arrived to its peak of 535,000 in 1968 when he was promoted to Army chief of staff.
On April 28, 1967, Westmoreland addressed a joint session of Congress.
“In evaluating the enemy strategy,” he said, “it is evident to me that he believes our Achilles heel is our resolve. … Your continued strong support is vital to the success of our mission. … Backed at home by resolve, confidence, patience, determination, and continued support, we will prevail in Vietnam over the communist aggressor!” Westmoreland claimed that under his leadership, United States forces “won every battle”.
The turning point of the war was the 1968 Tet Offensive, in which communist forces attacked cities and towns throughout South Vietnam. At the time, Westmoreland was focused on the Battle of Khe Sanh and considered the Tet Offensive to be a diversionary attack.
It is not clear if Khe Sanh was meant to be distraction for the Tet Offensive or vice versa. See the Riddle of Khe Sanh.
Regardless, U.S. and South Vietnamese troops successfully fought off the attacks during the Tet Offensive, and the communist forces took heavy losses, but the ferocity of the assault shook public confidence in Westmoreland’s previous assurances about the state of the war.
Political debate and public opinion led the Johnson administration to limit further increases in U.S. troop numbers in Vietnam.
He had been married to his wife Katherine since 1947; the couple had three children together.