Vietnam War Commander Westmoreland Dies at 91

Gen. William Westmoreland in Vietnam, 1967

hide captionWilliam Westmoreland in Vietnam, 1967

Gen. William Westmoreland, who commanded American forces in Vietnam from 1964 to 1968, died Monday night in Charleston, S.C. He was 91. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Stanley Karnow talks about Westmoreland and his insistence that the United States "did not fulfill its commitment to South Vietnam."

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

The Army general who commanded American forces during the escalation of the Vietnam War has died. William Westmoreland led US troops in Vietnam from 1964 to 1968. He died last night at a retirement home in Charleston, South Carolina. He was 91 years old.

General Westmoreland never allowed that the United States lost the war in Vietnam. Instead, he said the US, quote, "did not fulfill its commitment to South Vietnam." Joining me now to talk about General Westmoreland is reporter and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Stanley Karnow.

Good morning.

Mr. STANLEY KARNOW (Reporter/Author): Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Why did General Westmoreland remain so adamant that the United States did not lose the Vietnam War?

Mr. KARNOW: Well, he had to defend his own reputation. General Westmoreland, who was a really pleasant and courtly man, had one problem in Vietnam. He was a conventional general in an unconventional war. And he fought the war as American generals have fought wars in the past, by bringing to bear all the weight, military weight, the firepower the United States had. But in the end, what General Westmoreland didn't understand in Vietnam was that we were up against an enemy that was prepared to take unlimited losses. He felt--and he wasn't the only one; President Johnson, President Nixon for the other generals--believed that there was a breaking point that if you killed enough enemy troops, you would finally break the morale of the enemy. But they discovered that it didn't make any difference. We could win every battle, but it was irrelevant.

MONTAGNE: As a reporter, you covered news conferences that General Westmoreland held. What were they like?

Mr. KARNOW: General Westmoreland, unfortunately, was contributing to what we called the credibility gap by making greatly optimistic statements at a time when the situation was dreadful. And he kept using phrases like, `We see the light at the end of the tunnel,' and `Victory's just around the corner,' just as the war went on endlessly without any sign of progress.

MONTAGNE: He faced, though, something very different than previous American field commanders. Television carried terrible images of the war right into people's living rooms, and here's General Westmoreland speaking in 1985 about the changes in war reporting.

(Soundbite from 1985)

General WILLIAM WESTMORELAND: In World War II, and I'm very sensitive to that, we had war correspondents. They wore our uniform. They went into combat with us. They melded into the ranks. They were armed with a pencil and a note pad. They were not conspicuous. But to go into an assault landing now or into attack, with huge television cameras, with people carrying sound boxes and then a commentator who explains what is going on to the best of his ability, that is a factor that has to be considered. And this is something new that has been added in the television era.

MONTAGNE: General Westmoreland, speaking in 1985.

Would it be fair to say that he never stopped fighting the Vietnam War?

Mr. KARNOW: Unfortunately he did not understand the nature of the war, and of course as he lashed out and tried to find reasons why we lost and why we couldn't make any progress, he had to attack--he attacked television, as if television cameras made a difference, as if there weren't any television cameras in Vietnam, if there wasn't any reporters in Vietnam, the situation wouldn't have changed. The Vietnamese Communists were not fighting the war to be on the nightly news.

MONTAGNE: Well, just looking back at his life, I mean, he fought in two other wars, World War II, Korea, he was a superintendent at West Point, he distinguished himself. What else might he be remembered for?

Mr. KARNOW: Unfortunately, not very much. Vietnam was really his epiphany and his nemesis. That was the peak of his career. He was eventually removed because we weren't making any progress.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

Mr. KARNOW: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Stanley Karnow is author of the book, "Vietnam: A History," speaking of General William Westmoreland, who has died.

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