Charleston, S.C. -- His gait is slow, almost shuffling, but his carriage is as straight as it ever was, his jaw still chiseled, his gaze imperious. Westy still looks the part of a military leader, a characteristic often noted -- though more and more cynically as time passed -- when he was the commander of the U.S. Army in South Vietnam.
Nearly a quarter-century into his retirement and to his weary surprise, William Childs Westmoreland once again finds people are interested in him. Reporters from around the world are calling, seeking his explanation for a war that wrenched his country apart and irrevocably stained his once-lustrous career.
The calls are prompted by Sunday's 20th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, an event General Westmoreland refers to as America's "abandonment" of the South Vietnamese. They are also spurred by the publication of Robert S. McNamara's Vietnam memoir, in which the former defense secretary sharply criticizes General Westmoreland's military strategy.
The darts no longer seem to cause the general rancor. With patience, he repeats the mantra that has been on his lips since his Vietnam tour ended in 1968. "The American military never lost a battle of consequence," he says. "The war was lost politically."
But the general, who once attacked the press for presenting a distorted version of Vietnam ("The war that Americans saw was almost exclusively violent, miserable or controversial," he wrote in his memoirs), and who bitterly sued CBS for libel during his retirement, insists he no longer cares how he is perceived. "I don't know and I don't care," he says. "My philosophy as a professional soldier was to do what I was asked to do by the president, the commander-in-chief, and you don't worry about the political implications of it."
Two decades after Saigon fell to the Communists, the United States is edging closer toward diplomatic recognition of its former enemy. Even so, Americans are still far from coming to terms with a war that was fought both in Asia and at home. The debate over who was responsible for the American debacle in Vietnam has never ceased, nor have arguments about the war's villains and its heroes and who was who.
As the military's most prominent figure during the United States' build-up of troops, William Westmoreland continues to stir passions. To this day, many veterans believe the general was denied his victory by a weak-willed Johnson administration. For far greater numbers, however, he is remembered as yet another American leader who was blind to the realities of Vietnam.
Almost hidden from view in the vestibule of General Westmoreland's stately home is the bust of him commissioned by Time magazine when it named him its Man of the Year for 1965. He was almost certainly the most recognizable military figure in the world then, the handsome, supremely confident symbol of an American army ready to put into action John F. Kennedy's inaugural pledge: "Pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty." They are words the general recites from memory today.
For him, the price of Vietnam was extraordinarily high. Not so high, of course, as that paid by the 58,000 Americans who died there, but devastating indeed for a military commander once seen as a worthy successor to his country's great generals -- Grant, Patton, MacArthur, Eisenhower.
Instead, he left Vietnam with his reputation in tatters, the personification of America's self-delusion in Southeast Asia. Rather than receiving a hero's welcome, upon his return home he found himself being burned in effigy on college campuses.
The acclaim accorded his military predecessors and successors skipped him entirely. Today's military leaders have nothing to do with him. "I'm 81 years old," he says. "I'm a has-been. I mean, Washington doesn't give a damn what I think, and understandably so."
A Charleston friend, William Morrison, says that General Westmoreland's family has always been saddened that he never received what they regarded as his public due. As for the general himself, "I've never heard him complain about that," says Mr. Morrison, a lawyer, "but I'm sure he must feel he was denied his place in the sun."
Today, even the general's sharpest critics say it is unfair to blame any one person, and particularly a military figure, for so encompassing a tragedy as Vietnam. But that hasn't relieved General Westmoreland of a taint that will likely follow him through history.
"The tragedy here is that he was a very decent man who got into a very difficult war and didn't understand it," says David Halberstam, whose book, "The Best and the Brightest," chronicles America's misjudgments in Vietnam. "I regard him as a tragic figure, a man you just want to look away from."
Life back at home
Wearing a crisp white shirt and tightly knotted tie, the general is sitting in a rocking chair in a carriage house that serves as his modest office. Before him is a coffeetable cluttered with Christmas greetings from veterans, all of which he still intends to answer.
The only photograph displayed in the room is a black-and-white picture of Nguyen Van Thieu, South Vietnam's last president. The inscription thanks the general for his defense of South Vietnam and wishes him well on the occasion of his 54th birthday. It is dated March 26, 1968, shortly after the Tet Offensive once and for all time soured Americans on the war.
Four years later, after a stint as the Army chief of staff, General Westmoreland's career was over.
He and his wife, Kitsy, headed back to South Carolina, where Westmorelands have lived since before the American Revolution. They built an imposing house in the old section of the city, the first home the general had ever owned after 42 years in the Army.
His public life didn't quite come to an end then. In 1974, he launched a futile campaign to become South Carolina's governor. He lost soundly in the Republican primary. A decade later, he stepped back into the spotlight when he sued CBS for $120 million for a documentary charging that he had conspired to withhold information about enemy troop strength from his superiors. Though the affair badly damaged the network's journalistic reputation, the lawsuit was settled without an exchange of money or an apology from CBS.
"I'm going to try to fade away," the general said then.
He has, too, except for frequent appearances at veterans affairs. After he returned from Vietnam, he resolved to speak in every state about the valor of the American soldier during the war. His devotion to their cause has endeared him to tens of thousands of former grunts.
But that popularity never translated to either the general population or the majority of those who have studied the Vietnam War. Well before General Westmoreland left Saigon, many shared the view of Stanley Karnow, author of a highly regarded history of Vietnam. "I think he never understood the fundamentals of that war," Mr. Karnow says.
Many criticize General Westmoreland, a bold and decisive artillery commander in North Africa and Western Europe, for trying to fight World War II all over -- in Vietnam. "My view, shared by a good number of military scholars, is that General Westmoreland tried to fight an unconventional war in as conventional way as possible," says Andrew Krepinevich Jr., a former Army major who has written a book on strategy in Vietnam.
The architect of a "search and destroy" strategy, General Westmoreland tried to lure the enemy into large-scale battles, where he could kill as many of their troops as possible and destroy their will to fight.
But the strategy was faulty from the beginning. The North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong -- the guerrilla army operating in the south -- chose to fight small-scale actions. Their troops would strike quickly and at close quarters and then disappear into the ++ bush. In that way, they were able to control the pace and scale of the fighting, and make it impossible for the Americans to use their superior firepower.
More importantly, the American military never seemed to appreciate how much the Communists were willing to sacrifice. They believed themselves to be fighting a war of national liberation, a struggle that had gone on for 3,000 years. With much more at stake than the Americans, they were willing to endure far greater losses. As Ho Chi Minh, the Vietnamese Communist leader, told his earlier enemies, the French, "You can kill 10 of my men for every one I kill of yours. But even at those odds, you will lose and I will win."
Says Mr. Karnow: "Westmoreland didn't understand, nor did anyone else understand that there wasn't a breaking point. Instead of breaking their morale, they were breaking ours."
General Westmoreland can still visualize a carpet of enemy dead on the battlefield. The image prevents him from accepting the widely held notion that his North Vietnamese counterpart, Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, was a brilliant military leader. Rather than acknowledging the nationalistic appeal of the Communist insurgency, he still talks about an "Oriental" sensibility that accepted the loss of life in a way that Westerners would not.
"The price they paid for victory which was ultimately theirs was tremendous in lives," he says. "I don't think that disturbed Giap a bit or Ho Chi Minh, either one."
General Westmoreland knew that the enemy was replacing its troops faster than he was killing them, which was why he kept asking for more American soldiers. He also continued to provide rosy assessments of the war's progress. It was that optimism that helped destroy the government's credibility with the American public. If everything was going so well, people protested, why did the military need ever greater numbers of troops? Why did it need to expand the war into Laos, as General Westmoreland wanted? Why did it need to intensify the bombing?
"The Vietnam War was a lie," says David Hackworth, a retired Army colonel and highly decorated Vietnam veteran who writes often about military matters.
In late 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson brought General Westmoreland home to help rally support for the war effort. The general delivered, telling one audience, "We have reached an important point when the end begins to come into view." To others, he expressed supreme confidence. "I hope they try something -- because we are looking for a fight."
He got his fight in January 1968 when the Viet Cong launched the Tet Offensive, a ferocious assault on the major cities of South Vietnam. It was the first time the enemy had attacked the cities on such a large scale, and the American public was rattled, particularly by the televised image of Viet Cong fighting on the grounds of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon.
U.S. troops beat back the attacks, inflicting horrendous casualties on the enemy. But the damage to the American psyche at home was devastating. "Here's poor Westmoreland standing in front of the cameras amid all this disaster and saying they're taking a terrible beating, and he's not wrong about that," says Mr. Karnow. "But it's all falling on deaf ears because a month earlier he was telling us how well it was all going."
Soon after Tet, General Westmoreland was again asking for more troops, insisting that the enemy was now on the run. By then, though, Americans were fed up with the way the war was being waged, and Johnson had lost his stomach for it. The president announced he would not seek re-election and suggested he was ready to de-escalate the war. Within months, General Westmoreland was on his way home.
'He still doesn't understand'
Critics say the general could never fathom the war. "He says it was lost politically, but it always was a political war," says Mr. Halberstam. "He still doesn't understand the war."
Though the general is accustomed to such critiques from the press, he seemed unprepared for Mr. McNamara's evaluation of him. General Westmoreland referred to his former boss as a friend but "a complex man." The two spoke several weeks before the publication of Mr. McNamara's book, although the general says he hadn't known precisely what Mr. McNamara had written about him. He was eager to hear those sections of the book.
Much of the material was not complimentary. Mr. McNamara called the general's "search and destroy strategy" and his reliance on high enemy body counts "deeply flawed." At one point, the former defense secretary said he worried that Gen. Westmoreland's strategy "could lead to a major national disaster," possibly a full-scale war with China.
The general listened to those quotations while gazing out his office window. They did not seem to anger him so much as to tire him out. Finally, he roused himself to answer.
"It's inconceivable that we would put troops on the ground and that we wouldn't allow the troops to destroy the enemy, so I'm a little perplexed as to exactly what strategy [Mr. McNamara] would have employed.
"Somebody should sit down and study the implications of what McNamara is saying, which, I guess, is that we should have raised the white flag and gone home."
During his retirement, the general has seen Americans become captivated by later generation of military leaders. Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff during the Persian Gulf War, became a hero, as did Gen. Norman Schwartzkopf, the senior commander in the field.
General Westmoreland says he does not begrudge them their popularity. "I'm a big boy," he says. "I've fought in three wars. I understand every war is different."
While today's military leaders do not consult the general, many observers believe they have absorbed important lessons from his Vietnam experience. The military clearly has a preference for quick, popularly supported campaigns with clear objectives. Not coincidentally, the Pentagon has also tried hard to control media coverage of U.S. conflicts.
But if the military demonstrated it had learned Vietnam's lessons in places such as the Persian Gulf, some, including Mr. Hackworth, believe the Pentagon's understanding is none too deep: "We made the exact same mistakes in Somalia -- dependence on technology, reliance on firepower and absolute ignorance about the country."
General Westmoreland says he does not lose sleep over the Vietnam experience. After all, he says, his country has prevailed in the world. "Throughout this chapter in history you've got to face the facts," he says. "We are now the No. 1 country on the face of the earth. We have really no competition. It may be more a matter of luck than wisdom -- but here we are in the latter part of the 20th century and we are the undisputed world leaders."