GEN. William C. Westmoreland has apparently taken to heart advice from the late Sen. George Aiken of Vermont, who once suggested that the way the United States should extract itself from the morass of the Vietnam war was simply to ``declare victory and leave.'' General Westmoreland has now done just that by claiming vindication and dropping his $120 million libel suit against CBS -- a week before the case was expected to go to the jury. Westmoreland had sought damages from the network for allegations made in a 1982 CBS Reports documentary, ``The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception.'' General Westmoreland alleged that the broadcast had libeled him by implying that he had deliberately underreported enemy troop strength to his superiors, including President Lyndon Johnson, to gain political support for the American combat role in the Vietnam war. The subsequent effort by CBS to provide the former general with 15 minutes of free air time to present his side of the story was rebuffed by Westmoreland, who then brought his libel suit, underwritten by a conservative legal foundation.
The brief statement issued jointly by Westmoreland and CBS strikes a careful balance. CBS says that it ``respects General Westmoreland's long and faithful service to his country and never intended to assert, and does not believe, that General Westmoreland was unpatriotic or disloyal in performing his duties as he saw them.''
And General Westmoreland, according to the statement, respects the network's ``long and distinguished journalistic tradition'' and the ``rights of journalists to examine the complex issues of Vietnam and to present perspectives contrary'' to those of the general.
Clearly, however, the statement -- and decision by Westmoreland to drop his libel suit -- adds up to a victory for CBS and, perhaps, investigative journalism. Despite Westmoreland's assertion that the joint statement constituted an ``apology'' by the network, the overall impression of the CBS documentary remains intact. Indeed, some legal experts believe that the general's defense was badly harmed by testimony from defense witnesses in recent days that seemed to contradict his own position.
Like the earlier Time magazine-Ariel Sharon case, the outcome in the Westmoreland case adds up to a reaffirmation of the right of journalists to pursue an investigation into the most sensitive political matters affecting the nation's highest officials, elected, or -- as in the case of General Westmoreland -- appointed.
The two cases do differ in some important respects. In the Sharon case, the jury specifically rebuked Time magazine for publishing a report that was, according to the jury, negligent, defamatory, and false.
But the jury also held that the report did not libel Mr. Sharon, the former Israeli defense minister, because Time did not act maliciously or recklessly in printing the story -- that is, that Time officials did not knowingly and deliberately print the story while having doubts about its veracity.
The Sharon case thus reaffirmed existing legal constraints in which the press must operate: That is, the press has the right to pursue the truth about people and events, but must do so in a manner that avoids malicious or reckless disregard for the truth.
In the CBS-Westmoreland case, there was no jury finding at all, no decision that the allegations in the broadcast were in any way fallacious or that the allegations were made in a malicious manner.
Although the press lost neither of the cases, both served as a warning to journalists to redouble efforts to be more accurate. Opinion polls continue to show public unease about the perceived fairness of the media. Surely, in pursuing its right of inquiry, the press also has an obligation to be fair minded. Freedom of the press is vital to the very success of the democratic political process. For that reason, it is imperative that the press undertake the exercise of that right in the most thoughtful and responsible way possible.