- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.
By Gregg Jones
Best Defense guest columnist
The battle of Khe Sanh was the iconic confrontation of the Vietnam War, an epic test of wills in which 6,000 U.S. Marines held off as many as 20,000 communist North Vietnamese Army troops over seventy-seven days of siege in early 1968. The showdown recalled the celebrated 1954 siege of Dien Bien Phu, in which Vietnamese communist forces surrounded and eventually overran an isolated French stronghold. But unlike the French at Dien Bien Phu, the Americans maintained their fragile air link to Khe Sanh, and the combat base and its main outposts withstood communist bombardments and attacks until a relief force broke the siege in April. Barely three months later, U.S. Marines blew up their fortifications at Khe Sanh and slipped away.
1. The siege of Khe Sanh didn’t change the course of the war, but it yielded notable military developments. Among these was the widespread use of new electronic sensors, which were dropped into the jungle approaches to Khe Sanh and proved critical in the stronghold’s defense. The Khe Sanh campaign also saw the first use of tanks against American forces by the North Vietnamese. But the most spectacular feat of arms at Khe Sanh was Operation Niagara, the massive campaign of artillery and air strikes aimed at destroying North Vietnamese siege forces before they could overrun Khe Sanh. U.S. B-52 bombers and strike aircraft pounded North Vietnamese troops with more than 100,000 tons of bombs during the siege, and friendly artillery batteries adding 158,000 shells to the effort-the biggest coordinated display of American air and artillery power during the Vietnam War.
2. President Lyndon Johnson and General William Westmoreland considered the use of tactical nuclear weapons and chemical weapons to prevent an American defeat at Khe Sanh. In a series of remarkable cables and phone calls, Westmoreland informed Johnson that he didn’t believe nuclear or chemical weapons would be needed, but he held out the possibility that these ultimate options might be required to halt a North Vietnamese surge across the DMZ toward Khe Sanh.
3. War hawks have pilloried LBJ for not doing everything in his power to win the war in Vietnam, but the beleaguered president rejected the counsel of some top military advisors to make a stand at Khe Sanh. Among the most vociferous advocates of a retreat was retired Joint Chiefs chairman Maxwell Taylor, and he lobbied Johnson vigorously in letters and conversations. Johnson carefully considered Taylor’s advice, but ultimately backed Westmoreland’s quest to inflict a decisive defeat on the North Vietnamese at Khe Sanh.
4. U.S. forces were better fed and supplied than their communist adversaries in most Vietnam confrontations, but not Khe Sanh in the early weeks. On the hill outposts at Khe Sanh, shortages of food and water became critical. The hungry, bearded American defenders of Hill 881 South and 861 took on the appearance of ragged castaways on a desert island. A bold operation known as the Super Gaggle ended the resupply crisis by blanketing North Vietnamese positions with massive firepower, tear gas and smoke screens while helicopters swooped down to drop supplies onto the hill outposts.
5. Khe Sanh was a military victory for the Americans who successfully defended the stronghold during the seventy-seven days of siege. But that perception was shattered in July 1968 with the abandonment of the base, and Khe Sanh became etched in the minds of many Americans as a symbol of the pointless sacrifice and muddled tactics that permeated a doomed U.S. war effort in Vietnam. History’s verdict of Khe Sanh as a U.S. defeat is more an indictment of General Westmoreland and his false claims that Khe Sanh was indispensable to the U.S. war effort, rather than a true accounting of the epic siege that seized the national spotlight from January-April 1968.
Gregg Jones is the author of Last Stand at Khe Sanh: The U.S. Marines’ Finest Hour in Vietnam, recently published by Da Capo Press. He has worked as a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times, Dallas Morning News and Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He is also the author of Honor in the Dust: Theodore Roosevelt, War in the Philippines, and the Rise and Fall of America’s Imperial Dream and Red Revolution: Inside the Philippine Guerrilla Movement.