Vietnam War: General William Westmoreland

Gen. William Westmoreland, Vietnam, 1967. Photograph Courtesy of the National Archives & Records Administration

General William Childs Westmoreland was the US Army commander who led American forces during the early years of the Vietnam War. Having entered the service in 1932, he distinguished himself during World War II and the Korean War. Appointed to lead US forces in Vietnam in 1964, he sought to defeat the Viet Cong through the large-scale use of artillery, air power, and large-unit battles. Though his troops were frequently victorious, he was unable to end the North Vietnamese insurgency in South Vietnam and was relieved following the 1968 Tet Offensive. Westmoreland later served as Army Chief of Staff.

Early Life

Born on March 26, 1914, William Childs Westmoreland was the son of a Spartanburg, SC textile manufacturer. Joining the Boy Scouts as a youth, he achieved the rank of Eagle Scout before entering the Citadel in 1931. After one year in school, he transferred to West Point. During his time at the academy he proved to be an exceptional cadet and by graduation had become the corps' first captain. In addition, he received the Pershing Sword which was given to the most outstanding cadet in the class. After graduation, Westmoreland was assigned to the artillery.

World War II

With the outbreak of World War II, Westmoreland swiftly rose through the ranks as the army expanded to meet wartime needs, reaching lieutenant colonel by September 1942. Initially an operations officer, he was soon given command of the 34th Field Artillery Battalion (9th Division) and saw service in North Africa and Sicily before the unit was transferred to England for use in Western Europe. Landing in France, Westmoreland's battalion provided fire support for the 82nd Airborne Division. His strong performance in this role was noted by the division's commander, Brigadier General James M. Gavin.

Major General James Gavin in uniform with helmet.
Major General James M. Gavin. Photograph Courtesy of the National Archives & Records Administration

Promoted to executive officer of the 9th Division's artillery in 1944, he was temporarily promoted to colonel that July. Serving with the 9th for the remainder of the war, Westmoreland became the division's chief of staff in October 1944. With the surrender of Germany, Westmoreland was given command of the 60th Infantry in the US occupation forces. After moving through a number of infantry assignments, Westmoreland was asked by Gavin to take command of the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment (82nd Airborne Division) in 1946. While in this assignment, Westmoreland married Katherine S. Van Deusen.

General William Westmoreland

  • Rank: General
  • Service: US Army
  • Born: March 26, 1914 at Saxon, SC
  • Died: July 18, 2005 at Charleston, SC
  • Parents: James Ripley Westmoreland and Eugenia Talley Childs
  • Spouse: Katherine Stevens Van Deusen
  • Children: Katherine Stevens, James Ripley, and Margaret Childs
  • Conflicts: World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War
  • Known For: Commanding US forces in Vietnam (1964-1968)

Korean War

Serving with the 82nd for four years, Westmoreland rose to become the division's chief of staff. In 1950, he was detailed to the Command and General Staff College as instructor. The following year he was moved to the Army War College in the same capacity. With the Korean War raging, Westmoreland was given command of the 187th Regimental Combat Team.

Arriving in Korea, he led the 187th for over a year before returning to the US to become deputy assistant chief of staff, G–1, for manpower control. Serving at the Pentagon for five years, he took the advanced management program at Harvard Business School in 1954. Promoted to major general in 1956, he took command of the 101st Airborne at Fort Campbell, KY in 1958, and led the division for two years before being assigned to West Point as the academy's superintendent.

One of the Army's rising stars, Westmoreland was temporarily promoted to lieutenant general in July 1963, and placed in charge of the Strategic Army Corps and XVIII Airborne Corps. After a year in this assignment, he was transferred to Vietnam as deputy commander and acting commander of the United States Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV).

Vietnam War

Shortly after his arrival, Westmoreland was made permanent commander of MACV and given command of all US forces in Vietnam. Leading 16,000 men in 1964, Westmoreland oversaw the escalation of the conflict and had 535,000 troops under his control when he departed in 1968. Employing an aggressive strategy of search and destroy, he sought to draw the forces of the Viet Cong (National Liberation Front) into the open where they could be eliminated. Westmoreland believed that the Viet Cong could be defeated through large-scale use of artillery, air power, and large-unit battles.

General William Westmoreland, in US Army uniform and seated speaks with President Lyndon B. Johnson in the Oval Office.
General William Westmoreland with President Lyndon B. Johnson in the White House, November 1967. National Archives and Records Administration

In late 1967, Viet Cong forces began striking US bases across the country. Responding in force, Westmoreland won a series of fights such as the Battle of Dak To. Victorious, US forces inflicted heavy casualties leading Westmoreland to inform President Lyndon Johnson that the end of the war was in sight. While victorious, the battles that fall pulled US forces out of South Vietnamese cities and set the stage for the Tet Offensive in late January 1968. Striking all across the country, the Viet Cong, with support from the North Vietnamese army, launched major attacks on South Vietnamese cities.

UH-1 Huey helicopter landing near a group of soldiers.
173rd Airborne during the Battle of Dak To, November 1967. Photograph Courtesy of the US Army

Responding to the offensive, Westmoreland led a successful campaign which defeated the Viet Cong. Despite this, the damage had been done as Westmoreland's optimistic reports about the war's course were discredited by North Vietnam's ability to mount such a large-scale campaign. In June 1968, Westmoreland was replaced by General Creighton Abrams. During his tenure in Vietnam, Westmoreland had sought to win a battle of attrition with the North Vietnamese, however, he was never able to force the enemy to abandon a guerilla-style of warfare which repeatedly left his own forces at a disadvantage.

Army Chief of Staff

Returning home, Westmoreland was criticized as the general who "won every battle until [he] lost the war." Assigned as Army Chief of Staff, Westmoreland continued to oversee the war from afar. Taking control in a difficult period, he assisted Abrams in winding down operations in Vietnam, while also attempting to transition the US Army to an all-volunteer force. In doing so, he worked to make army life more inviting to young Americans by issuing directives which allowed for a more relaxed approach to grooming and discipline. While necessary, Westmoreland was attacked by the establishment for being too liberal.

Westmoreland was also faced in this period with having to deal with widespread civil disturbance. Employing troops where necessary, he worked to aid in quelling the domestic unrest caused by the Vietnam War. In June 1972, Westmoreland's term as chief of staff ended and he elected to retire from the service. After unsuccessfully running for governor of South Carolina in 1974, he penned his autobiography, A Soldier Reports. For the remainder of his life he worked to defend his actions in Vietnam. He died in Charleston, SC on July 18, 2005.

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Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "Vietnam War: General William Westmoreland." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). Vietnam War: General William Westmoreland. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "Vietnam War: General William Westmoreland." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 6, 2023).