William Childs Westmoreland (March 26, 1914 – July 18, 2005) was a United States Army General, who commanded US military operations in the Vietnam War at its peak (1964–68), during the Tet Offensive. He adopted a strategy of attrition against the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam and the North Vietnamese Army. He later served as U.S. Army Chief of Staff from 1968 to 1972.
In June 1964, he became deputy commander of Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), assuming direct control from General Paul D. Harkins. As the head of the MACV he was known for highly publicized, positive assessments of US 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 US 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!"
The 29-minute speech was interrupted nineteen times by applause, but Congressional and popular support for the war thereafter continued to decline.
Under Westmoreland's leadership, United States forces "won every battle. The turning point of the war was the 1968 Tet Offensive, in which communist forces, having staged a diversion at the Battle of Khe Sanh, attacked cities and towns throughout South Vietnam. US and South Vietnamese troops successfully fought off the attacks, 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 US troop numbers in Vietnam. When news of the My Lai Massacre broke, Westmoreland resisted pressure from the Nixon administration for a cover-up, and pressed for a full and impartial investigation by Lieutenant General William R. Peers. Westmoreland also made efforts to investigate the Phong Nhi and Phong Nhat massacre.
Westmoreland was convinced that the Vietnamese communists could be destroyed by fighting a war of attrition that, theoretically, would render the Vietnam People's Army unable to fight. His war strategy was marked by heavy use of artillery and airpower and repeated attempts to engage the communists in large-unit battles, and thereby exploit the anti-communists' vastly superior firepower and technology. However, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam (NLF) were able to dictate the pace of attrition to fit their own goals: by continuing to fight a guerrilla war and avoiding large-unit battles, they denied the Americans the chance to fight the kind of war they were best at, and they ensured that attrition would wear down the Americans faster than them. Westmoreland repeatedly rebuffed or suppressed attempts by John Paul Vann and Lew Walt to shift to a "pacification" strategy Westmoreland had little appreciation of the patience of the US public for his time frame, and was struggling to convince President Lyndon B. Johnson to approve widening the war into Cambodia and Laos in order to interdict the Ho Chi Minh Trail. He was unable to use the absolutist stance, "we can't win unless we expand the war" [into Cambodia and Laos]. Instead he focused on "positive indicators" which ultimately turned worthless when the Tet Offensive occurred, since all his pronouncements of "positive indicators" didn't hint at the possibility of such a last gasp dramatic event. Tet outmaneuvered all of Westmoreland's pronouncements on "positive indicators" in the minds of the American public. Although the communists were severely depleted by their heavy defeat at Khe Sanh when their conventional assaults were battered by American firepower, as well as tens of thousands of deaths in the Tet Offensive, American political opinion and the panic engendered by the communist surprise sapped US support for the war, even though the events of early 1968 put the US and South Vietnam into a much stronger military position.
- Karnow, Stanley. Vietnam: A History (New York, Penguin, 1991)
- Mascaro, Tom. The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception (Chicago, The Museum of Broadcast Communications)
- Smith Jr., W. Thomas. An Old Soldier Sounds Off (New York,, George, November 1998)
- Wallace, Mike with Gates, Gary Paul, Between You and Me (New York, Hyperion, 2005)
- Westmoreland, William C. A Soldier Reports (Garden City, N.Y., Doubleday, 1976)