In 1964, at age 50, William C. Westmoreland possessed the look of a professional soldier. He stood ramrod straight at five feet ten inches tall, carried his frame with a confident, light gait, and weighed a healthy 180 pounds, which was only ten pounds more than what he weighed as a cadet at West Point thirty years earlier. He maintained a flat stomach at a time in life when most men his age had developed a paunch from decades of bad food and too much time behind a desk.
To stay fit, Westy, as his confidants knew him, did push-ups immediately after rising from bed in the morning. Even though he spent much of his day in an office in Saigon, or sitting in helicopters, jeeps, and airplanes, he still found time to swim and play tennis at the French Circle Sportif. He particularly enjoyed tennis. When Maxwell Taylor (who had been Westy’s mentor in the military) served as ambassador to South Vietnam, Westy and Max occasionally caught a game together. Westmoreland never displayed unpredictable or reckless behavior. He didn’t smoke, rarely drank alcohol, and did not curse. The most foul words in his vocabulary were apparently “darn” and “dang.”
The general had deep-set, strong dark eyes that held a steady, focused gaze. In a picture dated from November 1967, Westmoreland is shown in conversation with President Lyndon B. Johnson in the White House. While speaking, the general stares directly into the eyes of Johnson, whose large, flabby face is only feet away from the general’s nose. In the image, Westmoreland doesn’t show the least bit of hesitancy in his demeanor. Anyone who could stand and speak in that way to Johnson, who was known for intimidating people by violating their personal space, certainly possessed a high degree of self-confidence.
Above Westmoreland’s intense eyes lay thick, jet black brows. In the fashion of the day, he combed his graying and thinning hair straight back, revealing the balding along both sides of his forehead. In accord with military regulations, he wore his hair short on top and tight on the sides, where the gray hair became more visible. Westmoreland had a jutting, square, rock-solid jaw, and a proud, full, chest.
To add luster to his image, Westmoreland possessed a furrowed scar across his left cheek. The crease had been made years ago in an automobile accident. As military men knew, a facial scar, acquired while in a fencing dual, once marked Prussian military officers with distinction. It had been a form of ritual mutilation that added to a Prussian officer’s status and character. Although Westmoreland’s scar had been acquired as a child in a rather unfortunate manner, the mark added an element of mystique to Westy’s otherwise straight-laced appearance.
Westmoreland could be very particular about his dress. Even out in the bush in South Vietnam, amongst grubby, combat-weary GIs, Westy appeared in pressed, clean olive-drab jungle fatigues. He might sweat dark spots through those jungle fatigues in the oppressive heat, or get drenched in one of South Vietnam’s frequent downpours, but he still looked good, he always looked good. On his head, that unattractive baseball-cap fatigue hat of the 1960s looked like it belonged there. Most GIs who wore that hat looked disheveled, or childish, or uncomfortable in it, but not Westy. In a decade that witnessed the rise of television media, and the proliferation of photography, as powerful forces in American culture and politics, Westmoreland understood the importance of appearances. The camera liked him, even if by the spring of 1968 the media did not.
Westmoreland’s meticulous appearance contributed to his career advancement. Just how much it influenced the Army’s promotion boards is impossible to gauge, but his good looks certainly did not hinder his rise to four-star general. Westy knew that looks mattered in the military, it was why he devoted so much time to his physical fitness and dress.
Westmoreland’s mode of speech was measured, articulate, and persuasive. He spoke clearly, somewhat loudly, and in short sentences that carried a punch. Unlike others in his profession, such as Earle Wheeler, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he was not droning or uninspiring in conversation. He could be passionate and animated. He had a tendency to enunciate certain words for dramatic effect. His writing style mimicked his speech. His memos are examples of brevity and focus. Westy went quickly to the heart of any matter. He was neither verbose nor rambling. These traits appealed to his men, and to his Commander-in-Chief, Johnson.
It could be argued that Westmoreland was too uptight, too spit and polish, too controlled, but in his business, the business of killing men, and killing them by the thousands, and then hundreds of thousands, control was of utmost importance. Westmoreland believed that without the control of man’s emotions, wilder impulses, and perverse derangements, war could quickly descend into an insane slaughter divorced from political purpose. Westmoreland was so controlled because what he did was so potentially out of control.
LBJ chose Westmoreland to serve as the head of MACV (Military Assistance Command, Vietnam) partly because Westy’s mentor, Maxwell Taylor, served as one of Johnson’s key advisors on Vietnam policy. Taylor recommended Westmoreland to the president. Moreover, Taylor’s new war theory of gradual escalation required strict control over the military command structure and the tools of war. If graduated military pressure was to be applied in Vietnam against the communists, the commander there needed to strictly adhere to the tenets of gradualism, without escalating the conflict too hurriedly. Taylor and Johnson believed they would have the ability to control Westmoreland.
Westmoreland also had good relations with Congress. Having served as the superintendent of West Point between 1960 and 1963, Westy came to know numerous U.S. senators, who selected a percentage of each year’s new class of plebes. LBJ believed Westmoreland’s connections with Congress would assist the administration’s efforts to garner support on Capital Hill for any escalation of the conflict.
Most importantly, LBJ chose Westmoreland because he was the un-MacArthur. General Douglas MacArthur commanded U.N. forces in Korea between the start of the war in June 1950 and April 1951. But in spring 1951, the flamboyant MacArthur publicly challenged President Truman’s decision to limit the geographical area of the war to the Korean Peninsula. MacArthur wanted to expand the war to China proper. He also believed the restriction against the use of atomic bombs against Chinese military and economic targets be lifted. The deployment of nuclear weapons against China carried the real possibility of general war with the Soviet Union, China’s communist ally. MacArthur was willing to risk war with the U.S.S.R. in order to quickly end the war in Korea. There existed some fear within the Truman administration that MacArthur might order the use of atomic bombs (stockpiled in Japan and under his command) against the Chinese without presidential authorization. Truman recognized the threat MacArthur posed to civilian control of the military. He also did not want a general war with the U.S.S.R. over Korea. Thus, the president relieved MacArthur effective April 11, 1951. Truman’s dismissal of MacArthur brought down a firestorm of criticism against the president from the general’s GOP allies in Congress, but Truman held firm to his decision.
LBJ, like Truman, feared a war with China and the Soviet Union. He knew a war in Indochina could easily spill over into communist China and lead to a global conflict with the two communist giants. Johnson wanted a general who would obey his Commander-in-Chief, who would accept the administration’s policy of limited war in Vietnam, who would not seeker a wider war with China, and who would not publicly challenge the president.
During the Cold War, when any war anywhere carried the risk of escalation into a nuclear conflict, Westmoreland’s steadiness, his adherence to routine, his lack of emotionalism, and his uneventful career appealed to LBJ. Westmoreland had never displayed any rashness or erratic behavior during his career. The president wanted a man in-charge in Vietnam who would not make hasty tactical or strategic decisions. He also wanted a general who would obey his commands. Westmoreland met all of LBJ’s requirements.
In 1967, LBJ considered replacing Westmoreland as MACV commander. But Johnson postponed Westmoreland’s transfer because he recognized that his dismissal in 1967 would raise questions about the conduct of the war, particularly Westmoreland’s attrition strategy. LBJ wanted to avoid intense scrutiny of his war policy before the 1968 presidential election. Johnson did not want the war to destroy his reelection bid. Keeping Westy in-country was part of that re-election strategy. The “progress campaign” in the fall of 1967 was also part of Johnson’s reelection effort. However, the Tet Offensive shattered the illusion of progress in Vietnam and exposed the administration’s lies on Vietnam. Tet also discredited Westmoreland’s attrition strategy and ruined LBJ’s chances for reelection.
After Johnson bowed out of the presidential race on March 31, 1968, he no longer had any reason to keep Westy at the head of MACV. Obsessed with public perception of the war, the president waited until after the end of mini-Tet to bring Westmoreland home. Had he brought Westmoreland back during the Tet Offensive or mini-Tet, Westmoreland’s ouster may have exacerbated the sense of crisis gripping the nation in the wake of those two major communist military operations.