Westmoreland’s Decision to Defend Khe Sanh

TroopsAtConThienIn January 1966, General William C. Westmoreland ordered the U.S. Marines to the Khe Sanh Combat Base in western Quang Tri Province to curtail North Vietnamese infiltration into South Vietnam along the system of trails known collectively as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. But like the Green Berets stationed at the base before them, the Marines failed to halt, or even slow, the flow of Communist soldiers and supplies southward. The same variables of distance, weather, and terrain that had made it impossible for the Green Berets to stop North Vietnamese infiltration also thwarted the Marines.  In the first year of the Marine deployment to Khe Sanh, the North Vietnamese infiltrated an estimated 62,000 men into South Vietnam.  In 1967, the North Vietnamese sent 101,000 soldiers down the Ho Chi Minh Trail into South Vietnam.[1]

Despite the inability of the Marines to do anything about North Vietnamese infiltration, Westmoreland kept the Marines stationed at Khe Sanh.  He believed the base and its grunts fulfilled important military objectives. Most importantly, COMUSMACV wanted the base occupied in the event President Johnson authorized a cross-border invasion of Laos to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail. If Johnson gave the order to go into Laos, the United States would need Khe Sanh as a jumping-off point to the west.

Westmoreland also believed the base and its Marine contingent threw the enemy in Laos off-balance by keeping North Vietnamese General Nguyen Giap and his subordinate commanders guessing as to U.S. intentions in the area.  With Marines at Khe Sanh, Communist commanders could not be entirely sure of the security of the Ho Chi Minh Trail or of their rear areas. Thus, the Communists would have to allocate a certain number of troops to the defense of the trail when they made plans for major operations in the South. Any deployment of North Vietnamese troops to defend the trail against an American cross-border invasion decreased the number of Communist soldiers available for combat in South Vietnam, which then translated into fewer U.S. casualties.

Although Westmoreland’s justifications for deploying the Marines to Khe Sanh made tactical sense, the base had little affect on Giap’s military plans. The Communist general understood that he would have plenty of advance warning of any U.S. thrust into Laos from Khe Sanh because the huge logistical preparations for such an invasion would be readily discernable at Phu Bai, Ca Lu, Camp Carroll, Cam Lo, and of course Khe Sanh. The North Vietnamese had no need to alter their deployment plans in the Khe Sanh area unless it became immediately clear that a cross-border incursion was in the offing.

In April 1967, the Marines fought to dislodge the North Vietnamese from the hills west and south of the base, which were being utilized as forward observation posts for Communist mortar and artillery gunners. Over the course of twelve days, the Marines and the North Vietnamese regulars fought a succession of vicious battles for hills 881 North, 881 South, and 861 – all of which overlooked the base’s airstrip. Aided by repeated airstrikes, the Marines eventually took the highpoints. An estimated 600 North Vietnamese lost their lives in what became known as the “hill fights.”  The Marines lost 138 killed.

The hill fights were significant, not because the hills were taken, but because of how U.S. casualties influenced Westmoreland’s later decision to stay and reinforce Khe Sanh. After the death and wounding of so many G.I.’s in the defense of the base, it became politically difficult for Westmoreland to abandon Khe Sanh at a later date. Although the base was not crucial to the defense of South Vietnam, the Marine deaths made it symbolically important. Khe Sanh had been invested with American blood. To withdraw from the base would have invited public criticism of Westmoreland’s conduct of the war, especially his willingness, during the hill fights, to throw away American lives in assaults against dug-in enemy soldiers on hilltops in the remote Central Highlands. One U.S. official summed up how the hill fights influenced Westmoreland’s later decision-making, “…for psychological and political reasons we wouldn’t want to pull back…what would the newspapers have written if we had given up Khesanh afterward.”[2]

After the hill fights, not everyone on the general staff in South Vietnam agreed with Westmoreland’s decision to hold on to Khe Sanh. One of those who questioned the necessity of defending Khe Sanh was Westmoreland’s long-time mentor, former U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam, Maxwell Taylor. By late 1967, Taylor no longer had much influence in the Johnson administration on Vietnam policy. Nevertheless, he seriously questioned the stationing of U.S. troops in South Vietnam’s hinterland, especially at remote bases such as Khe Sanh. Years later he wrote in his autobiography,”…I thought he [Westmoreland] should be told that, in this phase of the conflict, remote terrain along the frontiers of South Vietnam meant nothing in itself insofar as Washington was concerned, that the President and his advisors looked with favor on the avoidance of combat close to the cross-border sanctuaries of the enemy where he had the advantage of short lines of communications, and that they [in the administration] saw no advantage in paying a high price to hold exposed outposts like Khe Sanh.”[3]

The commander of U.S. Marines in I Corps, General Robert Cushman, wanted to abandon Khe Sanh and the other static defensive positions along the southern edge of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), including Con Thien and Gio Linh.  The Marine general did not consider those border bases necessary to the defense of South Vietnam.  Moreover, the bases sat too close to Communist strongholds in Laos and North Vietnam, which increased their vulnerability to enemy artillery, rocket, and mortar fire. According to Cushman, the Marines strung out on bases south of the DMZ were nothing more than sitting ducks, waiting to be slaughtered by the Communists’ deadly accurate big guns and rockets.  Cushman felt that the intense bombardment of Con Thien in late September 1967 proved his point.  During the Con Thien battle, the North Vietnamese hid their heavy artillery in camouflaged and fortified emplacements in and around the DMZ, firing on Con Thien with near impunity. Cushman thought it insane to subject his troops to such fire. He also disputed the argument made at MACV headquarters in Saigon that the Marines at Con Thien had checked North Vietnamese infiltration across the DMZ. That argument was preposterous.  The thousands of rounds raining down on Con Thien had driven the Marines underground.  Once restricted to their bunkers, the Marines were unable to leave the base to engage the enemy.[4]

Cushman wanted the Marines withdrawn from their forward bases. Doing so would ensure that his troopers were less exposed to Communist artillery fire. He proposed the establishment of a buffer zone of between six and eight miles between the southern DMZ and the Mieu Giang River. Within this zone, the Marines would keep constantly on the move, not erecting any permanent posts.  In order to inflict casualties on the mobile American units, the North Vietnamese would have to constantly redeploy their own units and artillery within the DMZ and the newly established buffer zone. The frequent redeployment of Communist units would reveal Communist artillery and troop formations to U.S. aerial spotters who could then call-in air strikes, artillery fire, naval gunfire, and fast-moving Marine mechanized units to destroy the North Vietnamese out in the open. Cushman’s flexible defense scheme played on U.S. strengths in mobility, communications, and combined arms, while a stationary U.S. defense played on the enemy’s strengths in camouflage, tunneling, fortifications, and long-range artillery. Unfortunately for the Marines, Westmoreland rejected Cushman’s proposal. COMUSMACV ordered the Marines to continue to hold the bases along the DMZ, regardless of their exposure to North Vietnam’s long-range artillery, rockets, and mortars.[5]

[1] Lewis Sorley, ed., Vietnam Chronicles: The Abrams Tapes, 1968-1972, (Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 2004), 675.

[2] New York Times, Khesanh: Why U.S. is Making a Stand, Neil Sheehan, February 23, 1968.

[3] Maxwell D. Taylor, Swords and Plowshares: A Memoir, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1972, Reprint, De Capo Press, Date Unknown), 389.

[4] John Laurence, The Cat from Hue: A Vietnam War Story, (New York: Touchstone, 2002), 449.

[5] New York Times, Khe Sanh: Why U.S. is Making a Stand, Neil Sheehan, February 23, 1968.

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