In June 1968, while I was in basic training, Gen. William Westmorland, had been kicked upstairs by President Johnson. He was promoted out of his job as commander of our troops in Vietnam, and into the job of heading up the Army as its Chief of Staff. I was once in a meeting with him and others at the Pentagon when it was thought a question might be asked about the Safeguard Anti-Ballistic Missile System.
I was off the hook and the only topic I remember being discussed that day was the M16 rifle. At Fort Leonard Wood, I had been trained to use the M14, though the more modern M16 had been in use in Vietnam for some years by that time. All I remember of the discussion among Westmoreland and the others present was what an advance it was to put a handle on the M16 to make it easier to carry than the M14. This topic of the day may have related to the official designation in 1969 of the M16A to replace the M14 as the U.S. military’s standard service rifle.
It wasn’t until both Westmoreland and I had retired from the Army that I ran across him again. In 1985, I was General Counsel of United Press International. UPI had just moved its headquarters to Washington, D.C. from Nashville, but I was commuting frequently from our home in Nashville to the nation’s capital. This commute was the product of UPI filing for bankruptcy in the District’s Prettyman federal courthouse. On one of my trips to Washington for UPI, I arranged to have lunch at the Hilton downtown with a newspaper reporter friend from Chicago, Eleanor Randolph. She had left the Chicago Tribune and was then working for the Washington Post. We had started our lunch in the Hilton’s dining room, when I noticed Gen. Westmoreland come into the room by himself. He was waiting to be seated by the maître d’. Eleanor immediately said she was going to ask him to join us.
I thought that more than a little presumptuous on her part, but as she got up to retrieve him she mentioned that she knew him because she had covered his recently concluded libel trial against CBS in New York.
In 1982, CBS had run a documentary, The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception. Westmoreland had sued CBS for $120 million for libeling him. His claim was that CBS had falsely said that he had misrepresented to superiors intelligence estimates of enemy strength for political reasons. Like many others, I had been following the trial and was aware that the lawsuit had just been settled. Gen. Westmoreland had decided abruptly to end the case after 18 weeks, immediately before it was to go to the jury. I was also aware of the fact one of the key witnesses against him had been his former intelligence chief in Vietnam, Gen. Joseph A. McChristian. This was the same Joseph McChristian whom I worked under when he served as Westmoreland’s intelligence chief at the Pentagon. They may have worked closely together for years, but I’m sure there was no lost love between them as a result of McChristian’s damaging trial testimony.
All and all it was certainly the most interesting lunch conversation I had in all my time at UPI. We discussed current events, the trial and Army matters. It appeared to me that Westmoreland must have thought he had gotten fair treatment from the stories Eleanor had filed from New York for the Washington Post. From their engagement, an onlooker might even have thought they were real friends, instead of former business acquaintances who were friendly, but still somewhat wary of one other.
As for me, I didn’t miss the opportunity to mention to Westmoreland that I had worked under McChristian. Given the obvious touchiness of the subject, however, I saw no reason to probe into the details of their relationship over the years, as much as it would have interested me to hear his answers. Westmoreland died 20 years after that lunch, in 2005, and Eleanor moved on from the Washington Post to the New York Times, serving for a time on its Editorial Board.