WASHINGTON — When General William Westmoreland died this week in Charleston, South Carolina, the press erupted with reminiscences, mostly about him and the Vietnam War, mostly permeated with the myths of the Kultursmog, the politically polluted culture of our elites, our liberal elites. After Vietnam the general spent the rest of his life refighting the war. He never learned that it was a war we could not win. He was a failure. Those are three of the foul thoughts that pollute the liberals’ culture and were repeated in many of his obituaries.
I knew Westmoreland later in life, not as a general but as a private citizen. For years he served on the board of The American Spectator. He was interested in journalism. He felt many American journalists did a pretty shabby job in covering the military. When a CBS News documentary, “The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception,” claimed in 1982 that he, as the commanding officer in Vietnam, had engaged in a “conspiracy” to “suppress” unfavorable intelligence and dupe America into believing we were winning the war, Westmoreland sued. CBS, after four painful months, admitted to grievous error and settled out of court. The general felt vindicated, but I doubt he ever felt fully satisfied. Somehow he could not accept that American journalists would get the facts so wrong and apply the paranoid scheme of a “conspiracy” to his generalship.
The old general I knew at American Spectator board meetings and other events was as incapable of conspiracy as he was incapable of bad manners. He was a thorough gentleman. Far from being consumed by Vietnam he never mentioned it unless one of his fellow board members brought it up. Nor did he talk much about military matters or his own illustrious military service. He had breezed through the Citadel and West Point, where in his last year he received the Pershing Sword for achieving the highest command position in the student body. He went on to fight valiantly through World War II in Europe. In Korea he commanded paratroopers and late in his career insisted on leaping out of airplanes. I once asked him why as a relatively old man he attempted such derring-do. If his young troopers could do it, he told me, he wanted to also. And I remember his smile in answering my question.
He was a perfect gentleman, but he was also a can-do kind of guy. Most of our soldiers are. Westmoreland was also a fount of good sense. There was a serene quality to him, and far from being preoccupied with anything from Vietnam to politics he always struck me as level-headed and sagacious. At the magazine we have always prided ourselves in developing younger generations of clear-headed journalists, and that seemed to be an interest of his. With regard to the Vietnam War he thought many of the journalists had gotten it wrong, but I could only get that judgment out of him when I brought the matter up. The war was never a military defeat, he believed. It was a political defeat. The politicians did not have the stomach for victory. What burned them most badly was the 1968 Tet Offensive, during which the North Vietnamese launched a massive assault that temporarily put them in control of critical parts of the country. Westmoreland instantly counterattacked, vanquishing the enemy and leaving 40,000 dead to the one thousand we lost. In military terms it was equivalent to General Andrew Jackson’s victory over the British at New Orleans, but the journalists reported it as a defeat and so it was recorded for years.
Actually now historians are noting that in military terms Tet was the Communists’ defeat. Our armies never lost in Vietnam, and Vietnam only fell after our armies had been withdrawn and our politicians reneged on their promise to resupply the South Vietnamese and bomb the North Vietnamese in the event of further aggression against the South. In the end the Vietnam War was very useful to the defense of American interests. Westmoreland’s forces held off Communist designs on the Pacific rim, showed Moscow and Beijing that continued aggression would be costly, and demonstrated the superiority of American military hardware and tactics, a demonstration that did not escape the Communists’ notice, particularly in Moscow. Vietnam was the last time the Communists mounted such an assault.
Yet back home the liberal politicians and their intelligentsia were whipped. They never again regained their resolve. Even today after the American military’s demonstration of its effectiveness in Afghanistan and Iraq, these bearers of the Kultursmog are revealing their defeatist nature. In Vietnam they demanded that we negotiate with Hanoi. Today the Taliban and the insurgents in Iraq offer no such opportunities to negotiate. Nonetheless the liberals are increasingly calling for withdrawal before our interests are realized. One wonders. Can they screw things up as nicely as they screwed up Vietnam?