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History on trial.

Gen. William Westmoreland ended his lawsuit against CBS in the same way he, and his government, ended their war in Vietnam: without grace, apology or the slightest admission of the magnitude of the loss. Westmoreland's abrupt pullout--a week before the $120 million libel suit was scheduled to go to the jury--recalled that hectic day in Saigon almost ten years ago when Americans raced to the roof of the embassy and flew off in a swarm of helicopters, leaving behind a devastated country, a wasted fortune and a ruined imperial policy. The official deception in those years was that America had achieved Peace with Honor. Westmoreland's personal deception last week was that he had won his case, made his point and saved his honor.

Indeed, deception has characterized General Westmoreland's behavior from the earliest days of the war to his pathetic performances on talk shows and interview programs after his last surrender. As the CBS film reported, and as the general himself indicated at the trial, he never understood the nature of guerrilla war and nationalist liberation. He underestimated the enemy's strength because he did not know the enemy. After the Tet offensive of 1968 he called the Vietnamese victory a defeat because he was unable to comprehend the political quality of the military conflict. CBS's claim that Westmoreland deliberately deceived President Johnson about the opposing army's size may well be true; the testimony at the trial (some of it from his closest aides in Saigon) was confirming the network's account when Westmoreland cried, Enough. But he may have deceived himself even more. He simply could not believe that many in the native population presumably under his control were soldiers in a revolution his supremely powerful nation was helpless to destroy.

Westmoreland's costly suit, estimated at $3.5 million, was subsidized by the right-wing Capital Legal Foundation. The foundation's interests were political and represented the conservatives' campaign to revise the history of the war in Vietnam and the popular movement to end it in America. Certainly the Vietnamese won overseas, as did the protesters at home. But their victory was incomplete. They did not have the power to establish the true record of the period beyond their borders and after their time had passed.

The forces that invaded Indochina, waged the war and fought political dissent on the home front will find more ways to rewrite the history of their mischief, to rationalize their lies, to draw specious lessons and fabricate morals. The stratagem of chilling the "liberal media" with an outrageous libel suit may have lost its appeal for the moment, but there are other ways of manipulating the culture. Reagan's patriotic rhetoric regularly denies the reality of the American past, not only in Vietnam but wherever the winds of cold war have blown. The deception continues, which is to say that the war at home is not over.

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Title Annotation:William Westmoreland's libel suit against CBS
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:editorial
Date:Mar 2, 1985
Previous Article:The pot and the kettles.
Next Article:CBS surrenders.

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