The grounds and buildings occupying the hallowed landscape of the United States Military Academy at West Point are adorned with statutes, plaques, and pictures of many of the nation’s most famous military leaders. The cemetery is a veritable who’s who of those who fought in our nation’s wars. Statutes of Patton, Eisenhower, and MacArthur stand outside West Point’s Library, Dining Hall, and Parade Grounds.
Inside Eisenhower Hall are pictures of some of its most notable graduates, including one who is often labeled one of the most controversial generals in American military history. There is also a plaque in his honor at Thayer Hall, the building that is named after the Academy’s first Superintendent, Sylvanus Thayer.
That controversial general was William Westmoreland and it was his days at West Point, and prior to his role in Vietnam when he served as Superintendent of his Alma Mater, which shaped his life and military career.
While much has been written about many of the Academy graduates, the point to be made is that a part of New York’s history has been largely shaped by those who attended West Point. What they did later in life extends back to those four years they served as students. Indeed, the life and career of Westmoreland came full circle, when, after many years later, he came back to New Year to lead his former Vietnam Troops down Broadway in a massive ticker tape parade. Hence, regardless of one’s feelings about the Vietnam War, we can all agree that one of its principal figures had ties to a piece of New York History and that is why it is worth recounting his life’s history.
William Childs Westmoreland was born to James Ripley “Rip” Westmoreland and Eugenia Talley Childs Westmoreland in rural Spartanburg County, South Carolina on 26 March 1914. Military service was a tradition on both sides of his upper middle class family. “Rip” Westmoreland was a textile plant manager in the town of Pacolet Mills where William was raised, and attended The Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina. As a teenager, William attended the 1929 Boy Scout Jamboree in Birkenhead, England.
Proudly wearing his Eagle Scout uniform, he toured England, Scotland, Germany, and France. The trip had a lasting impact on his life and belief in American patriotism. Years later he recounted that “It was my first trip overseas, my first exposure to foreigners… I was proud to wear the uniform of my country in a foreign land. I was eager to do it again. My pride to serve as a boy was fully sustained as a man.”
Following his graduation from Spartanburg High School in 1931, William followed in his father’s footsteps and enrolled at The Citadel, one of the South’s most famous military colleges. But, after one year, and his desire “to see the world” led him to apply to the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. Receiving a nomination from Senator James F. Byrnes, Westmoreland entered West Point in 1932. He was a member of a distinguished class of cadets that included three Army Chiefs of Staff, including his successor in Vietnam, Creighton Abrams, numerous commanders in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Korea, and Vietnam, the originator of the famous Green Berets, and the first African-American general, Benjamin O. Davis. Westmoreland’s own academic and military skills were widely recognized as a cadet. He was First Captain and Regimental Commander. Upon graduation in 1936, he was awarded the General John J. Pershing Sword. It was given annually to the cadet who excelled in all areas of military training.
World War II and After
Commissioned a second lieutenant in the United States Army with a branch service in the artillery, Westmoreland served in duty assignments at Fort Sill, in Oklahoma, Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, and Fort Bragg, North Carolina. In 1942, during the Second World War, he was promoted to the rank of major and placed in command of an artillery battery in Tunisia and Sicily. In February 1943, he distinguished himself at the Battle of Kasserine Pass in North Africa, an intense tank engagement against General Irwin Rommel’s famed pantzer division. For his heroic efforts and steadfast command, Westmoreland awarded the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. In less than two years he received two field grade promotions. He was then assigned to the 9th Infantry Division in France where promotion to full colonel and appointment to division chief of staff followed. During the Battle of D-Day, Westmoreland landed at Utah Beach on 10 June 1944 and managed to lead his men through intense machine gun fire. In March 1945, he and members of the 47th Infantry Regiment of the 9th Infantry Division captured and held the bridge at Remagen, Germany.
Despite a continuous two-week bombardment Westmoreland’s soldiers did not yield. It highlighted the grit and determination the tough-minded commander instilled in his troops. When Germany surrendered in May 1945, Westmoreland commanded a regiment in charge of occupation duties. During the war Westmoreland had achieved a reputation as a tough officer. Yet it was balanced by a personal compassion for the well-being of each soldier under his command. One soldier called Westmoreland “the most caring officer, for soldiers, that I have ever known.”
Intent upon making the Army his life’s career and assuming new challenges, Westmoreland completed parachute training in 1946. He was then put in command of the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the famed 82nd Airborne Division stationed at Fort Bragg. While stationed at Fort Bragg, he renewed his acquaintance with Katherine “Kitsy” S. Van Deusen, daughter of Colonel Edwin R. Van Deusen, the executive officer at Fort Sill when Westmoreland was a newly-minted 2nd Lieutenant fresh out of West Point. In May 1947 the couple married and had three children, two daughters and a son.
From 1947-1950, Westmoreland served as chief of staff of the 82nd Airborne Division, taught at the Army War College, and completed the Advanced Management Program at Harvard University. During the Korean War he commanded the 187th Airborne Regimental Combat Team and in 1953 was promoted to Brigadier General.
During the mid-1950s Westmoreland served on the military’s General Staff, primarily as the Army’s deputy chief of staff for manpower control at the Pentagon. In 1956 he was promoted to Major General. At age forty-two he became the youngest two star in the Army. On a fast track to become General of the Army Westmoreland then assumed command of the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. In July 1960, President Dwight David Eisenhower appointed Westmoreland Superintendent of his alma mater. At the time such an appointment was considered one of the plum positions within the Army’s officer hierarchy. During his three years at West Point Westmoreland, in the spirit of one his predecessors, General Douglas A. MacArthur, modernized the curriculum, improved the academy’s physical plant, and enlarged the academy’s enrollment. In 1963, now a Lieutenant General, Westmoreland returned to Fort Campbell as commander of the XVII Airborne Corps. His new command position came at a time when the insurgent war in South Vietnam intensified. President Lyndon B. Johnson, who became Commander-in-Chief upon the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, had many contacts with Westmoreland during the young general’s Pentagon tour in the 1950s. He now ordered him to Vietnam as deputy commander, U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV).
Vietnam and Controversy
Westmoreland arrived in South Vietnam on 27 January 1964. In June he succeeded General Paul D. Harkins as Commander of MACV. Westmoreland’s immediate charge was to advise and support the South Vietnamese Army in its struggle against the growing insurgency. Alarmed at the lack of urgency demonstrated by the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVAN) and the infusion of larger numbers of North Vietnam troop units penetrating into the south, Westmoreland initially proposed deploying the new U.S. Army airmobile force, the 1 st Calvary Division, to cut off the enemy’s line of communications by establishing bases in the Laotian Panhandle. President Johnson and Secretary of Defense, Robert MacNamara, rejected the proposal. With the conflict transforming itself from one of guerrilla warfare to the use of conventional forces, Westmoreland now devised “search and destroy” offensive missions to locate and defeat both Viet Cong and North Vietnamese regular forces. His plan called for greater troop increases. A soldier’s soldier, Westmoreland often boarded helicopters and flew into combat zones to meets with his commanders and their troops. When he assumed command in 1964, U.S. troop strength stood at 100,000. When he left Vietnam in mid-1968, the number had risen to over 500,000.
In early 1968, following the sudden numerous attacks in cities and towns throughout South Vietnam known as the Tet Offensive, Johnson ordered Westmoreland to return to the United States. Despite the heavy losses suffered by this enemies, the ferocious assault shook public confidence in Westmoreland’s more positive assessments of the war’s progress. The erosion of support forced the Johnson administration to limit further troop deployments to Vietnam. In June, Westmoreland was replaced by General Creighton Abrams. Westmoreland insisted: “It’s not that we lost the war militarily. The fact is we as a nation did not make good our commitment to the SouthVietnamese.” Nevertheless, the general had many doubters.
Westmoreland’s optimistic assurances about the state of the war did not sit well with the American public after the Tet Offensive. Westmoreland revealed that American intelligence had forecast an attack by the Viet Cong. But he could not contain his disdain for the press: “I made a mistake; I should have called a press conference and made known to the world that we knew this attack was coming.” In July 1968 he was appointed U.S. Army Chief of Staff. Under his leadership he witnessed the Army being transitioned into an all-volunteer force. He issued policies that many considered to liberal, such as soldiers being allowed to wear sideburns. He presided over a difficult time for the military. In July 1972, after more than thirty-six years of service, Westmoreland retired from the Army. During his years of military service Westmoreland received numerous decorations: four Distinguished Service Medals, the Bronze Star, Presidential Unit Citation, and the Master Parachutist Badge.
Post-Vietnam Years and Defending His Honor
In 1974, the retired general ran unsuccessfully as a Republican for the governorship of South Carolina. Two years later he published his memoirs, A Soldier Reports. The work was largely an apologia of his years as commanding general of U.S. forces in Vietnam. His retirement years were not without controversy. By his own appraisal he was “the most vilified man in America” in the 1970s.
In the 1980s he became embroiled in a failed 1985 lawsuit against CBS TV. The station aired a documentary accusing Westmoreland and his staff of falsifying enemy troop strength and casualty reports during his tenure as MACV commander. The 22 January 1982, CBS ninety minute documentary, “CBS Reports: The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception,” was narrated by Mike Wallace of the program 60 Minutes. An article in TV Guide responded by citing what it said were at least eight major errors and violations of CBS procedures with the program. Westmoreland sued the network for $120 million in damages. The trial, Westmoreland v. CBS, was held from October 1984 to February 1985. On February 17th both sides settled, each agreeing that it had proven its major points and Westmoreland settling for a letter of apology.
For Westmoreland, a West Point graduate, it was always about honor. In a December 1994 interview, Westmoreland touched upon the lawsuit: “They accused me of basically lying… If there is anything that I cherish, it’s character.”
Westmoreland kept a very active schedule of public appearances that included lectures, memorial dedications, and attendance at numerous veterans’ parades. He said that one of his proudest moments was leading a large parade in Chicago in 1986 and a Veterans Day Parade down Broadway in lower Manhattan during that same period. He remained a popular and beloved leader among many of the troops who served under him. It was common to see many Vietnam Veterans proudly sporting badges inscribed, “WESTY’s WARRIORS” at Veterans and Memorial Day parades. At age ninety-one he died on 18 July 2005 at the Bishop Gadsden retirement home in Charleston, South Carolina. On 23 July he was interred at the West Point Cemetery. Like many others who marched in the Long Grey Line, he came back home to reside with his fellow alumni.
There is a wealth of national history buried in the treasures of West Point’s past. (I encourage interested historians to dig deeper into those graduates of our military academy.) Whether their careers were shaped by acclaim, or by controversy, it’s indisputable that many of them were shaped by and helped shape New York State.
Photos, from above: plaque dedicated to General Westmoreland detailing his military career and membership in the Class of 1936; and General Westmoreland while serving in Vietnam.