Soldier. Westmoreland was born in Saxon on March 26, 1914, the son of James Ripley Westmoreland and Eugenia Talley Childs. Raised in Pacolet, Westmoreland was a good student, an Eagle Scout, and a competent athlete. After one year at the Citadel, he transferred to West Point, and in 1936 he graduated as first captain of the cadet corps, ranking 112 in a class of 275. The ambitious graduate was commissioned a second lieutenant in the field artillery and assigned to Fort Sill, Oklahoma. He was later transferred to Schofield Barracks, Hawaii.
Prior to World War II he was ordered to the Ninth Infantry Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. In late December 1942 he landed in North Africa for his first combat experience. He later served in the Normandy invasion (June 1944), the Huertgen Forest (fall 1944), the Battle of the Bulge (December 1944–January 1945), and at the Remagen Bridge (March 1945). After the war, Westmoreland, now a colonel, was appointed regimental commander in the Eighty-second Airborne Division, followed by an assignment as instructor to the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. On May 3, 1947, he married Katherine Van Deusen. They had three children. In mid-1952 he was assigned to Korea as commander of the 187th Regimental Combat Team. Before returning to the United States, Westmoreland was promoted to brigadier general at the age of thirty-eight. Then came appointments to the Pentagon, followed by command of the crack 101st Airborne Division. In 1960 Westmoreland was named superintendent of West Point, one of his most cherished assignments. He persuaded the president to double the size of the cadet corps to 4,417 and broadened the curriculum.
In 1964 Westmoreland was assigned to Vietnam as deputy to General Paul Harkins, commander of U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam. Westmoreland landed in Saigon on January 27 and in March was appointed to succeed Harkins, in part because President Lyndon Johnson and his advisers thought he had a more realistic understanding of the obstacles faced in Indochina. During his command, Westmoreland oversaw the U.S. military commitment rise from 20,000 troops to more than 500,000. Along with the Pentagon, he supported the intensive bombing of North Vietnam and oversaw the search-and-destroy tactics against the enemy. According to his biographer Samuel Zaffiri, Westmoreland did this reluctantly after Johnson stated that one of his goals was to “Kill enemy soldiers faster than they could be replaced.”
Although Time magazine named him Man of the Year for 1965, Westmoreland’s star gradually tarnished as American casualties mounted and a conclusion to the war seemed no closer than when he assumed command. In the wake of the Tet Offensive in February 1968, criticism became ever greater even though the enemy attacks were soundly defeated. Although there is uncertainty as to the exact motives for relieving Westmoreland, in 1968 he was brought home to a promotion as army chief of staff. Even this position was fraught with controversy as he tried shoring up the public perception of the military. He supervised the establishment of the all-volunteer force and elimination of the draft and worked for other changes in the army command structure before retiring in June 1972.
Returning to South Carolina, Westmoreland settled in Charleston. Encouraged in part by a “Draft Westmoreland” campaign, he entered the Republican primary for governor in 1974. But the career military man had little political acumen and fell victim to his opponent’s better grasp of politics. When he lost the primary to James Edwards, he was relieved. Westmoreland returned to writing his memoirs, published in 1976. But the controversy over his Vietnam tenure did not disappear. In 1982 in an interview with Westmoreland, the television show CBS Reports accused him of misrepresenting enemy strength to President Johnson and his advisers in 1967. The libel suit that Westmoreland brought against the network was inconclusive, although both sides claimed victory. Westmoreland spent his remaining years out of the public eye. He died in Charleston on July 18, 2005, and was interred in the cemetery at West Point, New York.
Westmoreland, William C. Papers. South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia.
–––. A Soldier Reports. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1976. Zaffiri, Samuel. Westmoreland: A Biography of General William C. Westmoreland. New York: Morrow, 1994.