At the height of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, dissident Republican Senator George Aiken of Vermont made a blunt suggestion to his hawkish opponents: declare the war a victory and pull out. Last week Gen. William C. Westmoreland, commander in chief of U.S. forces in Vietnam from 1964 to 1968, seemed to heed that advice when he declared a ceasefire in his own war against the U.S. media.
After 18 weeks of trial and 36 witnesses, Westmoreland abruptly dropped his $120-million libel suit against CBS Inc., shortly before the historic case was set to go to the jury. Westmoreland had based his action on a 1982 CBS documentary, The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception, which charged that his command had engaged in a conspiracy to suppress critical intelligence on enemy troop strength in the year leading up to North Vietnam’s 1968 Tet offensive. And despite his declaration of victory, Westmoreland had clearly abandoned the field to the powerful foe he had pledged to conquer.
In exchange for dropping his legal attack on the network, Westmoreland won CBS’s signature on a joint statement affirming that “CBS respects Gen. Westmoreland’s long and faithful service to his country and ... does not believe that Gen. Westmoreland was unpatriotic or disloyal in performing his duties as he saw them.” Then, at a heavily attended post-settlement press conference, the craggy, white-haired former commander, now 71, argued that the network’s statement had amounted to an apology. “I got all I wanted,” he told reporters, adding that he never would have sued had CBS made such a statement earlier.
But after two years of manoeuvring and more than $8 million in legal expenses for both sides, Westmoreland’s assessment of the result was a lonely judgment. Indeed, most lawyers and journalists present at the trial agree that Westmoreland’s withdrawal amounted to a clear-cut victory for the
network. As well, Westmoreland failed to get a retraction or any cash settlement. And his decision to spurn a jury verdict, which immediately followed severely damaging testimony from former subordinates, bore all the marks of a hasty retreat. It was “a good day for journalism,” declared the network’s often caustic interviewer, Mike Wallace, the narrator of the disputed documentary and codefendant in the suit.
The settlement ended one of the most gruelling and dramatic libel cases in U.S. history, one that replayed the tortuous debates and divisions over Vietnam. Witnesses appearing on Westmoreland’s behalf included former defence secretary Robert McNamara and Lyndon Johnson’s national security adviser, Walt Rostow—men drawn from the elite officials who set American policy and managed the war in Vietnam. They supported Westmoreland’s contention that he had never deliberately deceived his superiors as to the controversy over enemy troop strength between the U.S. military and CIA analysts. By contrast, CBS’s witnesses were mostly lower-ranking officers and intelligence analysts—precisely the sources to whom reporters turned between 1964 and 1968 for more pessimistic views of the war’s progress. In the trial, as once before in Vietnam, Westmoreland’s ap-
parently strong case began to deteriorate after they had spoken.
Two former key aides to the general confirmed CBS allegations that Westmoreland had ordered them to pare back their reports of enemy strength by deleting the Viet Cong’s local “self-defence forces” from their counts. When crossexamination failed to shake those damaging charges, Westmoreland’s credibility withered and two weeks ago his lawyer, Dan Burt, reopened settlement talks with the network.
The settlement will not end the debate about the fairness of CBS’s editing procedures while preparing the documentary, and the network has conceded that the film-makers had violated some of its internal guidelines. Among the transgressions: reinterviewing a witness and showing a witness clips from other people’s interviews.
Still, in the wake of recent libel actions that have had a chilling effect on American journalism, the outcome of the Westmoreland case provided a warning to public officials that going to court could result in further injury to already damaged reputations. Westmoreland’s tired appearance suggested that, indeed, has happened to him, and, at the trial’s unexpected conclusion, the aging soldier declared that his only wish was “to fade away.”
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.