“CBS almost certainly misled viewers,” concluded veteran reporter Stephen Klaidman in the New York Times.
He wasn’t talking about Dan Rather’s performance in the presidential election, when the CBS News anchor used phony documents to question the National Guard credentials of President George W. Bush.
Instead, Klaidman wrote these words more than 20 years ago, when General William C. Westmoreland settled a lawsuit he had filed against CBS for libel. The controversy over what the television network had claimed about the retired officer, who died yesterday at the age of 91, unmasked the biases of the mainstream media, hardened the public’s views about liberal journalists who insist that they are objective, and helped lay the groundwork for the swift rejection of Rather’s bogus assertions in 2004.
Born in South Carolina in 1914, Westmoreland attended the Citadel for a year but graduated from West Point. During the Second World War, he fought bravely in Africa and Europe. During the Korean War, he commanded paratroops. He became the youngest man in the history of the Army to attain the rank of major general (at the age of 42). So when the United States began to broaden its military commitments in Vietnam in the 1960s, he was an obvious choice to lead the American effort.
That war did not go well, and Westmoreland received his share of the blame. He always maintained that the United States could have prevailed in Vietnam, if President Lyndon Johnson had given the military more support. He also resented the antiwar movement, and sent liberal Washington into predictable conniptions when he called protesters “unpatriotic.”
Westmoreland left Vietnam for a Pentagon post in 1968 and retired from the military in 1972. He ran for governor of South Carolina two years later, but he lost the GOP nomination. His career of public service appeared to be at an end.
And technically, it was. But Westmoreland would enter the spotlight one more time and he would perform a final duty.
In 1982, CBS aired a 90-minute documentary called The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception. The show was produced and reported by Sam Adams and George Crile, with Mike Wallace hosting. It accused Westmoreland of trying to manipulate military intelligence during the Vietnam War–he coordinated a “conspiracy,” said CBS, to understate the enemy’s strength and thereby build public support for the war.
Within days of the broadcast, Westmoreland filed a $120-million lawsuit against CBS. He was represented by the Capital Legal Foundation, a public-interest law firm supported by conservative philanthropists. Disgruntled veterans also rallied to his side, sending in small donations. As the libel case went to jury in 1984, Westmoreland made impressive gains in the court of public opinion. The CBS program became an embarrassment to the entire news industry, whose political prejudices were exposed for all to see.
As the case went to trial in 1985, however, Westmoreland decided to settle. Dropping his financial demands, he accepted an apology from CBS. The news network declared victory, but its triumphant statements rang hollow. CBS News conducted an internal investigation that determined its own program to be “seriously flawed.” Sources hostile to Westmoreland were mollycoddled; critics of the CBS thesis were badgered. Wallace said he stood by the program, but later admitted that his confidence was shaken for two years.
The legacy of the Westmoreland case may not have been a courtroom victory for the general, but it educated the public in the culture and habits of the mainstream media–its penchant for sensationalism, its willingness to overlook complexity, and, most important, its antipathy for the U.S. military establishment.
Thank you, Gen. Westmoreland, sir, for your service to America–both in and out of uniform.
–John J. Miller is national political reporter for National Review and the co-author, most recently, of Our Oldest Enemy: A History of America’s Disastrous Relationship with France.