Even the unluckiest of destinies have their instructional uses, and William C. Westmoreland’s bearing on the day he withdrew his suit against CBS demonstrates how protracted experience with illstarred commands can teach you how to put the best face on misfortunes.
He had struck his colors on a constricting field when all but he had fled. He was left pounded by heavy guns originally issued to him and now snatched away by his besiegers. Retired Major General Joseph McChristian and retired Colonel Gains Hawkins had both sworn that the Columbia Broadcasting System had correctly imputed to Westmoreland the doctoring of enemy strength estimate in Vietnam. His battle was ending with mass defections from his own camp.
Nature had not endowed him with the cold indifference to other men’s interests that the true conqueror must sustain for the full service of his own. He lacked the cunning to recognize the occasions which demand that courtesy cease to be unfailing. On January 21, 1982, CBS’s broadcast was still to come, but Westmoreland was aware of the harsh treatment impending. He also knew that Major General McChristian’s own interview had been no small contribution to the approaching embarrassment.
He telephoned McChristian. There seems to have been none of the wrath to be expected from an affronted soldier. Instead, there was only polite regret. When McChristian hung up after thirty minutes, he set down the highlights of their conversation in a memorandum to himself. They had discussed the moment in 1967 when Westmoreland declined to be cargo carrier for the “political bombshell” that he believed would have exploded had he transmitted McChristian’s assessment of mounting enemy strength. “[Westmoreland] said he thought our conversation was private and official and between West Pointers.” The old rule that some things regulars tell regulars are not for the ears of civilians had been horridly breached. The long gray line had become a line of long knives, and William C. Westmoreland was not as angry as he was sad. After all, McChristian’s old commander observed, “he had stood up for and taken the brunt of Vietnam for all of us.”
And he seems stuck with that assignment. After four months of trial he could only lay down his arms on terms that held no consolation beyond formally permitting him his honor. CBS offered its respects to “General Westmoreland’s long and faithful service to his country” and expressed its conviction that he had never been “unpatriotic or disloyal.” In exchange for this testament that even his harshest critics would not think to withhold from him, Westmoreland yielded up a tribute to “the long and distinguished journalistic tradition” of the same CBS he had accused of “rattlesnaking” him when he testified only last November.
Even so he said that in stipulating the never-disputed fact that he is a patriot, CBS gave him all that he had ever wanted. “If that statement had been made” immediately after CBS broadcast the documentary that had offended him or at any subsequent point, “it…
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