You saw who... ?
SC Site of the Week
An Old Warrior Sounds Off
By W. Thomas Smith, Jr.
Editors note: In 1998, South Carolina-based freelance writer W. Thomas Smith, Jr. interviewed retired General William C. Westmoreland, former commander of American and allied forces in Vietnam, at the Generals home on Tradd Street in Charleston.
The interview was subsequently published in George magazine (Nov. 1998) as a counterpoint piece to an interview with Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap by the magazines founder, the late John F. Kennedy, Jr.
Following is the published interview in its entirety, including newly released non-published segments acquired exclusively by Palmetto Journal.
old warrior sounds off - Part 1
William Childs Westmoreland is the last of the Old Guard Southern commanders. He is an aging warrior with a genteel manner and the same predatory eyes that once glared beneath the familiar "jump wings" and four stars of his trademark sateen cap.
As the former commanding general of U.S. forces during the debacle in Vietnam, he has often borne the tarnished image of an entire era in American military history. But he makes no excuses, short of acknowledging a political misunderstanding of military operations. Instead, he focuses on the sterling accomplishments of the individual soldiers who served under his command.
At 84 years of age, Westmoreland enjoys a quiet existence; he has chosen to maintain a low media profile. Like another Southern general, Robert E. Lee, who a century earlier lost his own life-defining war, Westmoreland has retired to a life of long morning strolls and wading through reams of daily correspondence.
He has an aversion to reporters, rarely granting interviews. In his own words, "I am now under the command of Mrs. Westmoreland."
Frederick the Great once wrote, "It is the ground gained and not the number of enemy dead that gives you victory." Did we not violate this basic maxim in Southeast Asia with search-and-destroy tactics and body counts?
WESTMORELAND: On the battlefield, you move to physical objectives on the ground. You capture a hill. You capture a city. We were limited in our ability to pursue the enemy. We also had the secondary mission of training the South Vietnamese to fight their own war. We had to tutor and motivate them so they could take over the war. It was their country that was in jeopardy, not ours.
Is that why we failed?
WESTMORELAND: First of all, no nation should ever put the burden of war on its military forces alone. Society itself must be willing to pursue the war.
Now that having been said, remember we - I'm speaking of the military - did not lose a single battle against those people. But it was difficult for us to turn the war over to the South Vietnamese. They were short on leadership.
How do you consider your counterpart in the field, General Giap?
WESTMORELAND: The outcome of that war has been attributed largely to some special military genius on the part of the enemy. Much of that genius was attributed to who you say was my counterpart, General Giap. But in reality, Giap was not my counterpart. My position was never as exalted as his.
I was a soldier obeying orders, a field commander acting within the restraints of my own country's government. Giap, on the other hand, was an influential member of his own government. He was playing a political as well as a military role. He may have been my adversary, but certainly not my counterpart.
Of course, he was a formidable adversary. Let me also say that Giap was trained in small-unit, guerilla tactics, but he persisted in waging a big-unit war with terrible losses to his own men. By his own admission, by early 1969, I think, he had lost, what, a half million soldiers? He reported this. Now such a disregard for human life may make a formidable adversary, but it does not make a military genius.
An American commander losing men like that would hardly have lasted more than a few weeks. he also believed that United States military losses were far greater than what was reported. And he deluded himself into believing there would be an uprising by the South Vietnamese people during the Tet Offensive.
He also deluded himself at Khe Sanh into believing that he could promote a big-unit battle against a remote outpost away from the civilian population and win. At Khe Sanh, we had overwhelming fire superiority. And the result was that Giap's losses were terrible. Khe Sanh is where the myth of General Giap's military genius was discredited.
You mention the Tet Offensive of 1968. Looking back 30 years later, was this the beginning of the end of U.S. involvement in Vietnam?
WESTMORELAND: The enemy was soundly defeated. He suffered some 32,000 killed and 5,800 captured. We lost 1,001. South Vietnamese and Allied forces combined, around 2,000. On anybody's terms, this was a striking military defeat for the enemy.
Their defeat was so great that it took them years to recover. But the newspaper and television reporting gave the impression, if not of American and South Vietnamese defeat, then of an endless war that could never be won. And the only attack aimed at an American installation in Saigon was the U.S. Embassy. That particular target was hit for psychological effect. It worked. And the American reporters helped achieve it.
This influenced the president and advisors so much that they ignored the maxim "When the enemy is hurting, you don't diminish the pressure, you increase it."
Do you have any regrets about the war?
WESTMORELAND: No. I am a soldier, and we were obligated to go. Every soldier, sailor, airman, and Marine can look back upon their service in Vietnam with great pride. And they can be sure that despite the final failure of the South Vietnamese, the record of the American military forces, of never having lost a war, is still intact. I have no doubt about this and no regrets.
An old warrior sounds off - Part II
General, you fought in the Second World War, from North Africa to the Elbe River; you later made two combat jumps in Korea; and you, of course, commanded all American and allied forces in Vietnam.
WESTMORELAND: You mentioned three wars, but its actually four if you include my personal war with CBS (laughing).
As I understand it, you filed a $120 million suit against CBS after they aired a television documentary (The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception) which made the allegation that you deliberately underestimated enemy strength in Vietnam in order to bolster your own claims of military success. Then the case was settled out of court.
WESTMORELAND: Well, I went against the entire network.
The man that brought about that event was George Crile. He caused me to sue them. They put him on ice. He disappeared. But I think hes still on the payroll. He was an SOB. He fabricated a story to make headlines and they got hurt.
It was not a happy time. But I couldnt have slept if I hadnt taken them on. And they got what they deserved. They got their just desserts.
They were the outstanding network at the time, but they havent been since.
That is all I will say about that.
Describe your personal relationship with Lyndon Johnson.
WESTMORELAND: Johnson and I were good friends, both during his administration and after he was out of power. I spent a lot of time with him on his ranch outside of Austin. He was a fine man, a master politician.
He was a little skeptical of me when I first met him, though. He hadnt had much contact with professional soldiers and he questioned my motivation.
WESTMORELAND: Well, he understood political leadership, but he didnt understand military leadership. I gave him an education in that regard (laughing).
Lady Bird was a lovely person. She and my wife were very good friends.
I also liked Richard Nixon. He was a bright fellow, very persuasive. I spent many hours with him in the Oval Office.
I also spent many nights at the White House. Whats the name of that room theyve made all the fuss about?
Its the Lincoln bedroom. Did you spend a night there?
WESTMORELAND: I spent many nights in the White House, but whether or not I slept in the Lincoln Bedroom, I dont know. If it was the Lincoln Bedroom, nobody told me.
Early on in your career, you knew General George Patton?
WESTMORELAND: Oh, I knew him well. I dated his daughter. Boy she was a feisty gal. She had a vocabulary just about as outrageous as his. But I later saw General Patton briefly on the battlefield in both North Africa and Sicily.
What was said between the two of you?
WESTMORELAND: Nothing (laughing). I just saluted him and he returned the salute.
Some Americans today argue that the Armys Achilless heel is the fact that thirteen percent of todays military is comprised of females. Do you agree?
WESTMORELAND: Well, I remember when we met the Russians on the Elbe River in 1945. They had a big party for us, and the Vodka flowed like water. But what surprised me was the number of Russian women I saw in uniform, though I dont remember them carrying rifles.
But to answer your question, I think theres no doubt that weve gone too far trying to integrate women into our ranks. And I was a party to that. I promoted the first two females to the rank of brigadier general: The first in the history of our country. I promoted them, and then I gave them each a great big kiss (laughing).
You say weve gone too far. How so?
WESTMORELAND: Fighting battles is a mans responsibility, and theres a tendency today to put females in harms way.
WESTMORELAND: Its been encouraged by certain segments of the female population. They want total equity. And I feel that will never be achieved unless theyre involved in every occupational specialty. Weve gone way too far. But I think were beginning to realize that now.
Then why do senior officers often advocate increased roles for women?
WESTMORELAND: Im not so sure they do. The gender problem is like a pendulum. It swung too far out, but now its coming back. A few years ago there was a tendency to treat females just as the males. There is now a recognition that they should be handled in a different fashion.
Can women perform on the battlefield as well as men?
WESTMORELAND: Oh, absolutely not.
Your thoughts on the Persian Gulf War.
WESTMORELAND: Well, it wasnt a war. It was a military operation. It was a very large, very successful operation. But it certainly was not a war; more of a fleeting campaign.
In the American Civil War, during the battle of Fredericksburg, General Lee was taken aback by the courage of both Confederate and Federal troops as the Federals were continuously repulsed by the defending Confederates. He purportedly turned to one of his aides and said, "It is good that war is so terrible, else we would become too fond of it."
WESTMORELAND: Well (laughing), I wasnt there so I dont know if Lee actually said that. But if you say so, thats fine with me.
The point is General, is there glory in combat?
WESTMORELAND: When you are successful on the battlefield, there is a sense of satisfaction. That is the extent of glory.
What was the darkest day of your career?
WESTMORELAND: When my brother-in-law, who was a lieutenant colonel, was killed during fighting along the Mekong River. We were very close friends. And, of course, he was my wifes brother.
What was the most rewarding aspect of your career?
WESTMORELAND: Ive commanded an awful lot of troops in my day. And I guess the single most rewarding thing about my career would be those times when I commanded troops in the field, we would make contact with the enemy, and defeat him. When the chips were down, my men never were.
Is the American soldier today as tough and willing to obey orders as he was in your day?
WESTMORELAND: I dont think there is any difference other than the fact that hes probably got better weapons than we had in my day. I guess Im an old man. Technically, I am. But I know that the soldiers today are not far different than the ones I commanded. After all, were not talking about ancient history.
Theres really no better soldier in the world than the American soldier. Hes got initiative, hes resourceful, and hes properly equipped. We outfit him in a good uniform, provide him with good weapons, give him the finest training, and hopefully the best leadership on the planet.