The battle fought in and around Khe Sanh has gone into US military history. Khe Sanh base was to the southwest of the 17th Parallel and a number of miles northeast of Danang and Hué. The battle at Khe Sanh was the bloodiest of the Vietnam War and initially there were fears that it might degenerate into an American Dien Bien Phu. However, the importance of the battle ad the success of the US Marines was shown when in May 1968, President Johnson awarded the 26th Marine Regiment the Presidential Unit Citation for its bravery at Khe Sanh.
Khe Sanh has been a US garrison base in South Vietnam since 1962. Its importance was a result of its position. US forces based at Khe Sanh were very well placed to patrol the nearby Ho Chi Minh Trail. The base also acted as the western end base for the demilitarised zone that separated the North and South Vietnam. By 1968, there were 6,000 Marines at Khe Sanh. The base was an obvious target for the North Vietnamese. If they could defeat the base, they would have an almost unobstructed control of the northwest section of South Vietnam, which would allow them to exploit the Ho Chi Minh Trail to the full. For this reason, General Giap placed a great deal of importance on capturing Khe Sanh – to the extent of surrounding the base with 20,000 men.
The battle around Khe Sanh was fought as part of the Tet Offensive, though for the purposes of History it has taken on a dimension of its own. The siege of the base started on January 21st 1968 as part of the Tet Offensive. General Giap hoped that the Americans would place so much importance on the base, that they would defend it at all costs. This, Giap hoped, would include bringing in other US reserves from elsewhere in South Vietnam so that these places would be less well defended.
It is almost certain that the leader of the North Vietnamese Army, General Giap, believed that he could orchestrate another version of his historic victory against the French at Dien Bien Phu with a conventional assault on US forces at Khe Sanh. In this instance, despite his many successes, Giap was wrong.
At Dien Bien Phu, the North Vietnamese had the advantage of controlling the high ground around the French fortifications. They did not have this tactical advantage at Khe Sanh. The Americans also had near total air supremacy – this was a major reason why the base did not fall to the NVA. US Air Force aeroplanes were able to keep the NVA pinned down using either pinpoint bombing with napalm or blanket bombing much larger areas using B52 bombers. In total, 80,000 tons of bombs of all description were dropped on NVA forces around Khe Sanh. American confidence in their air supremacy was such that on March 27th 1968, a senior Marine officer based in Danang stated that there were no plans in place for withdrawing the Marines at Khe Sanh – despite the siege moving into its third month.
US ground troops also had great firepower and this meant that the NVA could only use disrupting tactics as opposed to making a conventional attack. However, the one major advantage Giap had was that his forces surrounded Khe Sanh. Even if the NVA was exposed to US fighter/bomber planes, they could still revert to attacking Khe Sanh in smaller guerrilla units. NVA units frequently got to the outer limits of the base even if they were unable to penetrate it. Marine patrols rarely got any further than 100 to 200 metres from the base before coming under attack. Despite the aerial attacks, the NVA were able to launch mortar raids on the base – one on February 8th killed 21 men and injured 26 others. On February 25th, one patrol lost 9 dead, 25 wounded and 19 missing in action.
Both US Marines and the NVA fought ferociously for Khe Sanh. Both placed huge importance on the base. For the Americans, the base had to hold out for many reasons. The psychological impact on the French of the fall of Dien Bien Phu – guarded by elite paratroopers and men from the French Foreign Legion – was overwhelming. The defeat marked the end of France as a colonial power. Khe Sanh was also guarded by elite troops – US Marines – and both Westmoreland and Johnson knew that the US public would neither tolerate nor accept defeat by a Third World nation. Withdrawal from Khe Sanh was out of the question.
The siege at Khe Sanh lasted until April 5th. However, despite the ‘end’ of the siege, the NVA was still in the region with 7,000 men and the fighting continued into the summer of 1968. The NVA had established large artillery guns in Laos, which were out-of-range of US artillery at Khe Sanh. It was not unusual for 100 artillery rounds to fall on the base in a day.
The defence of Khe Sanh was helped by the reopening of Route 9 in April. This allowed US Army forces to deploy to Khe Sanh to support the Marines. The journey along Route 9 was perilous but it did allow the Americans to supply Khe Sanh with heavier military equipment that could not be brought in by air. In the Spring of 1968, the NVA adopted different tactics to attack the base and this prompted some senior US officers to consider abandoning Khe Sanh. Westmoreland was furious that the issue was even discussed. He was resolute that the base would not fall nor be abandoned.
Westmoreland even called on President Johnson to use tactical nuclear weapons against the NVA – a call Johnson rejected. Westmoreland was replaced as commander of US forces in Vietnam by General Creighton Abrams and appointed Army Chief of Staff. Such was the psychological importance of successfully defending Khe Sanh that Johnson had built a model of the base in the Situation Room at the White House. However, he now listened to senior Marine and Army commanders who believed that staying at Khe Sanh was more of a long-term liability to the Americans as opposed to remaining there. The decision was taken to close down Khe Sanh. This fact was kept from the US public for as long as possible and when it was announced, it was with as little explanation as was possible. The main reason given was that the base was far too exposed to have a greater military life expectancy. One unnamed senior Army commander based in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) went as far as stating that “Khe Sanh was in the way; it was tying us down.”
Khe Sanh was officially shut on July 5th. North Vietnam made great play out of this. Nearly three-quarters of Hanoi radio broadcasts for a week after July 5th were devoted to what they described as their victory. In America, a changing tactical situation was given as the reason for the closure and the closing of the base was never referred to as a defeat. In fact, even after July 5th, Marines still operated around Khe Sanh and engaged the NVA in combat. The government made the point that overwhelming NVA forces had failed to do what they had set out to do – capture the base, and that it was a US command decision to leave the base as opposed to a decision being foist onto them by successful NVA activity.