General William Westmoreland Sues CBS for Documentary, The Uncounted Enemy: a Vietnam Deception

Westmoreland v. CBS, Inc., 584 F. Supp. 1206 (D.C. Cir. 1985)

Gen. William Westmoreland filed a libel suit against CBS in September 1982. The previous January, CBS had aired a documentary titled The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception. In it, the network claimed Westmoreland had placed an “arbitrary ceiling” of 300,000 troops on official reports of Viet Cong numbers, disregarding self-defense forces, whose strength was approximately 50,000 more than previous estimates. CBS alleged that this left the American military unprepared for the Tet offensive.

“Let me emphasize the issue here is not money,” the General said of a suit that sought $120 million in damages, an amount he vowed to donate to charity. Westmoreland filed in his home state of South Carolina, where technicalities in libel law at the time generally conveyed an advantage to the plaintiff.

When testimony by two high-ranking intelligence officers indicated that Westmoreland did indeed alter reports on Viet Cong troop strength out of political considerations—and when the judge instructed the jury as to the complex standard of “actual malice” required on the part of the defendant for a libel conviction—Westmoreland dropped the suit. Both parties stated in February 1985 that the public should decide right from wrong in the case, rather than a judge or jury.

Westmoreland would claim on the witness stand that he subtracted self-defense soldiers from troop estimates because he didn’t consider them militarily significant, and because he feared the media would misinterpret the statistics.