Battle of Khe Sanh (1967-1968)

Khe Sanh, located 18 miles south of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and 8 miles east of the Laotian border in Quang Tri Province, had been a small Special Forces base since 1962, but General William Westmoreland in 1965 took notice of its strategic significance as well. For him, Khe Sanh could be used for covert operations into Laos or a major invasion of Laos, reconnaissance flights over the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and as a base for cutting off North Vietnamese Army (NVA) infiltration into South Vietnam along Route 9. When NVA infiltration increased in 1966, Westmoreland had a Seabee unit extend the airstrip and had the United States Marines send a battalion (1st Battalion, 3rd Marines) to Khe Sanh. In the spring of 1967, Khe Sanh was garrisoned by the 1st Battalion of the 26th Marines. Intelligence estimates also began showing a considerable increase in traffic along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and American military officials assumed the North Vietnamese were planning a large-scale invasion, with Khe Sanh a strategic point in the attack.

That was exactly what the North Vietnamese wanted them to assume. They were in fact planning the Tet Offensive for 1968, and as a preliminary to that offensive they wanted to draw American troops away from the major population centers of South Vietnam to diversionary battles in remote areas. In October and November, NVA soldiers attacked the marines at Con Thien as well as Loc Ninh and Song Be near Saigon, and Dak To in the Central Highlands. Late in 1967, military intelligence indicated that the NVA 325C Division was northwest of Khe Sanh; the 304th Division was southwest; and elements of the 324th and 320th divisions were close enough to provide reinforcements. It appeared that 25,000 to 40,000 NVA regulars were prepared to engage American forces in a head-on military confrontation. In response, General Westmoreland organized Operation Niagara, an armada of more than 5,000 aircraft and helicopters to crush NVA troops in an unprecedented artillery bombardment. He also had 6,000 U.S. Marines sent in to defend Khe Sanh. The NVA siege of Khe Sanh began on January 21, 1968.

For the next ten days, President Lyndon B. Johnson debated the question of whether to hold Khe Sanh. General Maxwell Taylor argued that it ought to be abandoned because of its isolated position and because the North Vietnamese would be able to overrun it if they actually decided to accept the casualties necessary to do so. Westmoreland wanted it held at all costs, so the siege of Khe Sanh began to build up as another resemblance of Dien Bien Phu. Johnson sided with Westmoreland, and the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam commander then initiated Operation Niagara. In the next two months, the United States unloaded more than 100,000 tons of explosives on the five-square miles surrounding Khe Sanh.

But on January 31, 1968, the battle for Khe Sanh was absorbed by the much larger scale confrontation between U.S., ARVN, Vietcong, and NVA troops in the Tet Offensive. The marines at Khe Sanh were expecting a full-scale NVA attack, but the only constant was artillery bombardment. Cargo planes and helicopters kept the base minimally supplied. The attack never came. Early in March the NVA abandoned the siege. Westmoreland then launched Operation Pegasus to relieve Khe Sanh. The 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) moved in and reopened Route 9. In mid-June 1968, the marines left Khe Sanh. The North Vietnamese had failed to overrun the site, but the bigger Tet Offensive had succeeded in politically demoralizing the American public and undermining the American military effort.