Washington — ''I have been subjected to a vicious, scurrilous, and premeditated attack on my character and personal integrity,'' says Gen. William Westmoreland, ''a preposterous hoax that will not go unanswered.''
General Westmoreland, the jut-jawed former American military commander in Vietnam, has been accused in a CBS News documentary of purposely underestimating the strength of enemy forces before the critical Tet offensive in 1968, in an attempt to lure President Johnson into committing 300,000 extra soldiers to the war.
The charge, and Westmoreland's denial, hinge on the murky results of defense intelligence gathering - an occupation which seems, at best, imprecise.
''Nobody claims to have the truth,'' says George Carver, former CIA special assistant for Vietnamese affairs, referring to estimates of the enemy's numbers during the war. ''Anybody who does either doesn't know what he is talking about or is lying.''
CBS reporter Mike Wallace, in ''The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception,'' charged that Westmoreland conspired with top military officials to suppress crucial counts of enemy strength that would have been a ''political bombshell.''
In addition, Wallace charged, an arbitrary lid of 300,000 was put on Viet Cong troop strength estimates. He reported that the number of North Vietnamese Army troops infiltrating to the south each month was deliberately understated as 5,000 to 6,000, when in fact it was known to be 20,000 or more.
Westmoreland, in a Jan. 26 Washington press conference featuring many of his Vietnam-era colleagues and former Ambassador to Vietnam Ellsworth Bunker, vigorously disputed the charges brought by CBS reporter Mike Wallace. He hit strongly at the ''conspiracy'' theory (''lies''), while not denying there were sharp disputes as to the actual nature and number of the enemy.
''Intelligence is at best an imprecise science,'' said Westmoreland. ''It is not like counting beans; it is more like estimating cockroaches.''
At issue is the ''order of battle'' - the official count of fighting enemy. When Westmoreland assumed command, the order of battle included combat forces plus political cadres and the self-defense militia of hamlets and villages.
In 1967, his chief of intelligence, Maj. Gen. Joseph McChristian, came up with new, higher figures on the political cadres. Westmoreland did not count them in the order of battle. He also did not include figures on the self-defense militia.
''Those people were essentially noncombatants and had been there all along; we simply had no good estimate of their number,'' said Westmoreland in his defense. ''The discovery of them in no way increased the fighting strength opposing our forces in the field.'' There followed, claims Westmoreland, sharp disagreement in intelligence circles about how to properly include the semi-combatants in the order of battle. Eventually, an agreement was reached. This, he said, is what Mike Wallace labels ''conspiracy.''
''Not only was (President Johnson) aware of the debate, he said, 'Can't you guys get together on a number?' '' said George Carver.