October 22, 1984 12:00 PM

How the tables have turned. Seventeen years ago it was the press—and particularly TV news—that played David to Gen. William Westmoreland’s Goliath during the Vietnam War. It was the media that changed the hearts and minds of Americans through its daily footage of carnage, and thereby eroded the nation’s will to fight on in Southeast Asia. But now it is Westmoreland, 70, a white-haired senior citizen living in Charleston, S.C., who has raised his sling and shot against video’s mightiest: CBS-TV.

Last week in Manhattan federal court, the retired general’s $120-million libel suit against the network went to trial. Westmoreland contends that a 1982 CBS Reports documentary, The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception, defamed him by accusing him of deceiving President Lyndon Johnson about the enemy’s strength.

At stake during the trial, which could last months, will be the credibility of a major news organization and perhaps even the press’ freedom to criticize public officials. Also at stake is the reputation of Westmoreland. Two years ago the general expressed reluctance to bring suit against the network. “It was my fate,” he said, “to serve as senior American commander in the most unpopular war this country ever fought. I have been reviled, burned in effigy, spat upon. Neither I, nor my wife, nor my family, want me to go to battle once again.” On the advice of counsel Dan Burt, he is maintaining silence during the trial. But recently contacted at his mountain retreat in Asheville, N.C., he nevertheless explained why he decided to fight. “I couldn’t have lived with myself if I hadn’t done it,” he said. “I had a moral obligation to my troops.”

Westmoreland’s old subordinates clearly share this sense of obligation. One organization, Veterans for Westmoreland, estimates that close to $185,000 has been donated by more than 6,000 soldiers across the country. The money has helped offset Westmoreland’s nearly $2 million in pretrial expenses, which has been largely covered by the Capital Legal Foundation, the conservative public-interest law firm representing the general. The Foundation, itself financed by conservative groups like the Sarah Scaife Foundation, is interested in rectifying what it sees as abuses by CBS. Westmoreland’s former troops have come to his aid for more sentimental reasons. Says Tony Bliss, chairman of the veterans’ committee, “He was at the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the only high ranking official who was there. One thing the press has never done is look at General Westmoreland as a human being. He’s always a fire-eating, four-star general.”

Westmoreland was a hot property virtually from the outset. Born in Saxon, S.C. and educated in nearby Spartanburg schools, he was rated at West Point as the cadet best suited for command although he ranked only 112th of 276 in the class of 1936. An infantry officer in World War II, a paratroop leader in Korea, he became at 42 the youngest major general in the Army, and superintendent of West Point at 46. A copywriter’s dream, complete with craggy brows and iron resolution, he was sent to Vietnam in 1964, and in 1966, as supreme U.S. military commander there, was TIME’S “Man of the Year.” Then came 1968, the Tet Offensive and the dismantling of his image, largely via TV. Tet was catastrophic for the enemy, which lost nearly half its forces. But the political impact counted for more: The lingering video image on the homefront was that of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon being overrun and the fall of Hue. Within two months Westmoreland was recalled from Vietnam and “kicked upstairs” to the post of Army Chief of Staff before his retirement in 1972.

The general has lived for the last 10 years in a pink two-story house with a courtyard on Tradd Street, one of the more venerable streets in Charleston. According to neighbor Conrad Zimmerman, Westy and Kitsie, his wife of 37 years, “go to the grocery and the cleaners like everybody else.” Their favorite gathering place is the Carolina Yacht Club where Westmoreland drinks wine before enjoying a bantam filet. In 1974 he lost a bid to be Republican governor of the state.

His chances in the first round against CBS might be better. “Plaintiffs do well in front of juries,” says noted New York libel lawyer Floyd Abrams, “and defendants do well in appeals courts.” Westy has one more thing going for him: The trial will not be carried by TV—so he won’t have to face those cameras again.

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