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A Chronicle of Extraordinary Service: The Military Career of Gen. William Childs Westmoreland
by Craig M. Keeney
One evening, I was approached by a group of young American Scouts who asked me to guide them to the top of a mountain overlooking Edinburgh. I told them I was also an American and was unfamiliar with the area, but in view of my Southern accent, I failed to convince them. Realizing this, I volunteered to guide them and proceeded to take them to the top of the mountain which, of course, I had never visited before. When I was successful, they pointed out that my knowledge of the route reaffirmed their conviction that I was a Scotsman. W. C. Westmoreland
Letter dated June 5, 1974
Perhaps most noted for the role he played in the Vietnam War, General William Childs Westmoreland exhibited at a young age the strength of character that would one day deem him his generation's most renowned warrior. In a 1974 letter, Westmoreland reminisced about his involvement with the Boy Scouts of America and a trip he took at the age of fifteen to the World Boy Scout Jamboree in Europe. Peers looked to him for leadership and guidance from an early age.
Caricaturist Jack Rosen visited Vietnam in 1966 where he created this image of Westmoreland. In January 1974, Rosen sent Westmoreland the original drawing.
Westmoreland was born in Spartanburg County on March 26, 1914, to Eugenia Childs and James Ripley Westmoreland. He attended The Citadel for a year, at the end of which he received an appointment to West Point upon the recommendation of South Carolina Senator James F. Byrnes. In June 1936, he graduated from West Point as first captain, the institution's highest cadet rank, and received the Pershing Sword - given each year to the most militarily proficient cadet. His colleagues noted that "Westmoreland sought, as a cadet, to achieve his leadership objectives by example . . . far more than by propriety and power of position."
These leadership qualities served Westmoreland well in his next assignments and established a pattern of steady advancement. He served with the 18th Field Artillery Regiment at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and with the 8th Field Artillery Regiment in Hawaii. In May 1941, he became captain of the 9th Infantry Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. In April 1942, he assumed command of the 34th Field Artillery Battalion. During World War II, these divisions fought the Axis powers in Northern Africa and Sicily. On June 6, 1944, Westmoreland landed with the 9th Infantry Division at Omaha Beach. He remained in Europe until 1946 as commander of the 60th Infantry Regiment occupation forces in Bavaria.
The decade following World War II brought personal fulfillment and opportunity for Westmoreland. On May 3, 1947, he married Katherine ("Kitsy") Van Deusen. Their marriage produced three children: Katherine, Margaret, and Rip. Westmoreland earned his parachute and glider badges at Fort Benning, Georgia, and went on to serve as chief of staff of the 82nd Airborne Division between August 1947 and July 1950. He also served as a faculty member at the Army War College in Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania, for a year before becoming commander of the 187th Airborne Regimental Combat Team in Korea. During the Korean War, he was promoted to brigadier general. In December 1956, he received his second star, becoming the youngest major general in the U.S. army.
Westmoreland attended the World Boy Scout Jamboree in England during the summer of 1929. While there, he acquired this kilt from a Scottish scout.
Click on image for larger view.
In July 1960, after two years as commander of the 101st Airborne Division "Screaming Eagles" at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, Westmoreland was appointed superintendent of his alma mater, West Point. During his three years at West Point, he initiated programs to expand facilities and update the curriculum. He left West Point in July 1963, when he was promoted to lieutenant general and transferred to the XVIII Airborne Corps at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
A year later Westmoreland was designated commanding general over U.S. Army forces in Vietnam, thus commencing one of the most tumultuous periods in his life. The General's leadership in Vietnam between 1964 and 1968 drew considerable protest from antiwar activists who went so far as to burn him in effigy; however, his soldiers almost unanimously praised his convictions and his concern for their welfare. In a letter dated January 14, 1974, an assistant, Betty Reid, wrote:
I only heard you swear once during those four years and that was when you first heard that term "Body Count"-you were so furious after a briefing that you came out and told Colonel Fullman, Mr. Montgomery, and me that it just made you sick. To you, you said, those "bodies" were our men-individuals with faces and names dying out there-not "just bodies."
The Westmoreland family (left to right, Rip, Stevie, Gen. and Mrs. Westmoreland, and Margaret) at the United States Military Academy, West Point, New York, circa 1960.
Click on image for larger view.
In July 1968, Westmoreland was sworn in as Army Chief of Staff and left Vietnam. He retired from the army in July 1972 after serving thirty-six years, but he continued to serve the American public. In 1972 the Westmorelands relocated to Charleston, South Carolina, and the General was appointed chairman of the Governor's Task Force for Economic Development by Governor John West. In 1974 Westmoreland launched a campaign for the governorship of South Carolina. As a candidate without political experience, Westmoreland expressed the belief that "the privilege of service is too valuable and has too great an impact upon the lives of many people to apathetically watch the political process move with its traditional lethargy." He carried thirty-nine of forty-six counties in the South Carolina Republican Primary election of July 16th but lost to Charleston's Jim Edwards.
Westmoreland suffered a mild heart attack in January 1975, but this setback slowed him only temporarily. If anything, the fall of South Vietnam to the North Vietnamese and American perceptions that the U.S. military forces failed in Vietnam put the General on a new offensive. The 1970s and 1980s saw a flurry of activity by Westmoreland to counteract public apathy and misunderstanding of military policies. He defended the performance of Vietnam veterans, and he withdrew from the 9th Infantry Division Association when it refused to admit Vietnam veterans. He composed editorials and delivered speeches concerning Vietnam, the draft, the Panama Canal treaties, and unstable foreign governments. In 1976 Westmoreland wrote his memoir, A Soldier Reports, wherein he discussed the limitations he faced while acting as commander of forces in Vietnam.
Westmoreland's relationship with the media was an ambivalent one. He needed the media to broadcast his views, but he was often appalled by what he perceived as biased and inaccurate reporting. He was angered when CBS anchorman Mike Wallace - in the 1982 television documentary The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception - accused him of deliberately falsifying information to his superiors. Later that year, Westmoreland sued CBS in protest of their libelous and unfounded accusations. In 1985 he agreed to drop the suit in return for a statement affirming his loyalty. A year later, Westmoreland noted with some satisfaction: "Ten years ago, I was kind of just the bad guy with horns.…Now it's all different. They [audiences] don't look on me as a curiosity. They think of me as a retired officer who performed to the utmost of his ability."
The collection speaks volumes about Westmoreland and the twentieth century through its documents and artifacts. Water-stained items from 1989 testify to the destruction wrought by Hurricane Hugo. Caricatures, photographs, news clippings, scrapbooks, reel-to-reel film, original artwork, and correspondence with celebrities, civilians, and veterans alike are all represented. Collectively, these artifacts illustrate a changing nation and one of its most respected defenders and servants.
Craig Keeney is a graduate assistant studying in the Department of History who is working with the Westmoreland papers under the supervision of archivist Brian Cuthrell.
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