Why Vietnam Still Matters: Was Khe Sanh a Win or a Loss?

Photo by Lawrence J. Sullivan | CC BY 2.0

Exclusively for CounterPunch, Matthew Stevenson travels from Haiphong and Hanoi, in what was North Vietnam, to the Central Highlands and Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon and the capital, in search of the remnants of the American war in Vietnam. This is Part V of an eight-part series.

Siege of Khe Sanh 1968. Khe Sanh is just south of the DMZ, in what was the northwest corner of South Vietnam, near the border with Laos. You can get there from Hue.

From the Street Without Joy, I had the taxi drive me through Le Thuy, a seaside village where in 1953 the French launched Operation Camargue, complete with Normandy-style landing craft. Twelve years later, U.S. Marines would echo the theatrical landing with a similar coming-ashore party in Danang (several hours down the coast), although neither mission made much of an impression on the Viet Cong lurking in the sandy soil that stretches from the beaches to Highway 1.

Neither French soldiers nor American marines were ever able to pacify the scrub land along the Street Without Joy, as most of the villages and hamlets in the area, including Lai Ha where Fall was killed, resemble small island fortresses afloat on an inland sea that is laced with dykes and rice paddies.

I cannot imagine that even heavily armed patrols, of either invading army, wanted to tangle with the Vietminh down the remote jungle lanes of those villages, which is why they stuck to the roads (which, in turn, were targeted by mines and mortars).

The Bridge Between North and South

From the coast south of Quang Tri City, the driver headed to the Hien Luong Bridge, which once spanned the divide between North and South Vietnam, especially after the Geneva conference in 1954, which temporarily partitioned the country along the 17th parallel.

At the same time, the Americans, assisted by the U.S. Navy, orchestrated the resettlement of thousands of refugees (including many Catholics) who decided to flee to South Vietnam rather than carry on in the agnostic North. It was across the bridge than many refugees (from both North and South Vietnam) passed, seeking newer worlds.

Eventually a total of over 800,000 Vietnamese left the North, many of them Roman Catholics who were warned by their priests, “The Virgin Mary has moved to the South. Shouldn’t you?”

The irony of the partition, according to Loren Baritz in Backfire: A History of How American Culture Led Us into Vietnam and Made Us Fight the Way We Did, is that it aligned the nascent country in the North with two American enemies. He writes: “The line delivered North Vietnam’s belly into the hands of the People’s Republic of China, while its head remained in Moscow.” (The end of the Korean War also allowed for many Chinese-made weapons to be shipped to North Vietnam.)

According to the terms of the 1954 Geneva conference, North and South Vietnam were to have held presidential and parliamentary elections in 1956, but neither President Dwight Eisenhower nor his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, saw any reason to allow the Communist North to win at the polls.

After the elections were postponed, the 17th parallel hardened into more of an international frontier, similar to the 38th parallel that divided North and South Korea after the 1953 truce. But neither line in the sand (in Vietnam, the soil is more marshland) had its origin in any recognizable historical border or division.

The foot bridge, painted half in blue and half in yellow, remains as part of a memorial to the reunification of Vietnam, although as far as I can tell it’s only Western tourists who come to the spot.

It’s a station of the cross on their war excursions from Hue, which include some DMZ tunnels, the Marine base at Khe Sanh, Hamburger Hill, and lunch in a café that sells soup and Kit Kats to the tourist trade.

McNamara’s Line

Perhaps the most bizarre legacy in the DMZ is what was called the McNamara Line, the brainchild of Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. During the height of the American war in Vietnam, tired of infiltrators from the North coming across the DMZ, McNamara came up with the idea of clearing a mile-wide swath across the DMZ and lining the defile with electronic sensors (some of which are still on display in local museums).

In theory, as NVA infantry came across the cut, the Americans would scramble helicopter gunships or artillery to take out the invaders. The McNamara Line obscured a larger problem for the American war effort, which was that neither the U.S. nor the South Vietnamese armies had sufficient men to defeat the combined arms of the NVA and its local affiliates in the Viet Cong.

From the South China Sea to the border with Laos, the DMZ is about fifty miles wide, although much of the landscape, especially in the west, is high hills and gnarly mountains, not unlike Daniel Boone’s description of Kentucky: “a dark and bloody land.”

All 550,000 American forces in Vietnam could have been lined up along the southern perimeter of the DMZ, and even then they would not have stopped the NVA from passing to the South. More complicating, many of the incursions came to the west, along the Ho Chi Minh trails, which bypassed the DMZ and headed south through Laos and Cambodia, neither of which were included in the reach of McNamara’s sensors.

All the Americans could do in the DMZ was establish artillery fire bases on strategic hilltops, and from those isolated peaks—they had names such as Camp Carroll and The Rockpile—send out artillery shells and patrols, in the vague hope that they might slow down the invasion of the South.

Alas, the fire bases were no more a barrier to invasion than was Maginot’s Line in spring, 1940, when the Germans overran the French frontier.

The Marines Make a Stand

The most famous fire base near the DMZ was that at Khe Sanh, which in 1967-68 saw some of the heaviest fighting in the Vietnam War. Khe Sanh is the name of a town on the western edge of the country, just south of the DMZ.

The American base there, which was capable of landing large transport planes and helicopters, protected Highway 9, the east-west road from the coast toward Laos.

Although the analogy is not precise, the American presence at Khe Sanh, and the battles in the surrounding hills, echoed aspects of the 1954 French battle to hold its strategic outpost at Dien Bien Phu.

Khe Sanh was a lonely encampment that, during the worst of the fighting, was cut off from its resupply lines and could only be reinforced from the air.

In his history of the war, Neil Sheehan describes how the American commander in Vietnam, General William Westmoreland, entertained some of the same fantasies that the French had at Dien Bien Phu. He writes:

As Westmoreland talked, Krulak [a Marine general] could see that his overriding motive for sending Marines to Khe Sanh was the hope that a Marine base isolated in the mountains would attract thousands of North Vietnamese troops who presumably could be pulverized by U.S. firepower.

The fighting to defend Khe Sanh was some of the most desperate of the war, although several months after fighting off the NVA attacks (in summer 1968), Westmorland’s successor Creighton Abrams decided to abandon the fire base, a withdrawal that symbolized much of the American confusion about the aims of the war.

Route 9 to Khe Sanh

This was my second visit to Khe Sanh. Since my first trip in 2016, I had read several accounts of the fighting, including two Marine Corps memoirs of the death struggles to hold the lines on the surrounding hills.

Neither in my books nor on my visits to the battlefields could I make up my mind about one of the more interesting questions of the Vietnam War: were the attacks against Khe Sanh during the 1968 Tet Offensive a sideshow, intended to siphon American resources to a distant corner of the country; or did General Giap intend at Khe Sanh a rerun of his greatest hits against the French at Dien Bien Phu, and in so doing hope to annihilate the Americans in a death trap that was far from any centers of population?

To any of the marines who defended Khe Sanh and its surrounding fire bases, the NVA attacks against the American lines were part of “a big one.” In his history of the battle, Last Stand at Khe Sanh: The U.S. Marines’ Finest Hour in Vietnam, Gregg Jones argues that the attacks were part of a major campaign against vulnerable American encampments. He writes:

The truth about North Vietnamese objectives will probably never be known with certainty, but Giap’s commitment of three reinforced divisions to the opening stage of the Khe Sanh campaign was certainly more than was necessary for an effective ruse.

Another reason that Khe Sanh was a major event of the Vietnam War is that it straddled one of the main by-ways of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which in recent years has been turned into an interstate through the highlands, complete with off-ramps, rest stops and suspension bridges, however primitive.

Even if Giap hadn’t wanted to divert so many of his men to the jungles around Khe Sanh, he had no choice but to strike the fire base if he wanted to maintain supplies to his troops fighting further south—and Giap, like Dwight Eisenhower, was a general best understood as a quartermaster with five stars.

Even a senior Viet Cong leader thought it was major battle. In A Viet Cong Memoir, Truong Nhu Tang writes of the difficulties in renewing the offensive in the early 1970s: “What might happen to the Northern main-force divisions in the meat grinder of American air power was anyone’s guess. Certainly Khe Sanh was not an encouraging precedent.”

Was Khe Sanh a Sideshow?

Among those who have argued against Khe Sanh as a pivotal battle are the journalist-historians Howard Simpson and Neil Sheehan, both of whom concluded that Khe Sanh was a feint, to divert the attention of American commanders, if not the president, away from the goal of the Tet Offensive, which aimed to strike a blow in urban areas and end the war.

In his accessible history Dien Bien Phu: The Epic Battle America Forgot, Simpson, who served many years in Vietnam as both a diplomat and a foreign correspondent, argues that Khe Sanh was anything but a rerun of the earlier battle that doomed the French. He writes:

There was no equivalent of Dien Bien Phu during the American war, though President Lyndon B. Johnson, Gen. William Westmoreland, and others mistakenly perceived a repetition of the battle at Khe Sanh early in 1968. But this battle was a diversion by Giap, aimed at luring U.S. forces away from the coastal cities so that he could launch the Tet offensive. He knew that the Americans and the French were different and that he lacked the muscle to challenge America’s overwhelming might in a single confrontation.

Nor is there is any doubt that both Westmorland and Lyndon Johnson became obsessed with holding Khe Sanh, even if they were reluctant to commit more than several battalions of U.S. marines to its defense. (Behind them stood artillery and carpet bombings, which were called in whenever concentrations of NVA soldiers could be located.)

Ironically, one of the units in the line at Khe Sanh was the First Battalion, Ninth Marines, with whom Bernard Fall was on patrol when he was killed. It was also during the siege at Khe Sanh that Fall’s recently published history of Dien Bien Phu, entitled Hell In A Very Small Place, developed its wide readership. (You might find it hard to read and long, but it’s worth the effort.)

There’s no doubt that, if the attacks against Khe Sanh were a feint, both Westmoreland and Johnson took the bait. Westmoreland said emphatically at one of his command meetings: “We are not, repeat, NOT, going to be defeated at Khe Sanh.” On numerous occasions he had to make the same representations to President Johnson (who liked to plead with his advisers: “I don’t want any damned Din-Bin-Foo!”).

Lyndon Johnson’s Tables of Sand

LBJ went so far as to have installed in the White House a replica of the landscape around Khe Sanh, so that he could better follow the briefings on its fate. (Nor was Johnson above making tactical suggestions during the Vietnam War. After all, he loved to boast, about the air war, that his generals “…can’t bomb a shithouse without asking my permission first.”)

In his biography of John Paul Vann and the American experience in Vietnam, Neil Sheehan also makes the point repeatedly that Khe Sanh was a sideshow, part of the psychological war against the easily distracted Americans. He writes in several passages:

—Khe Sanh was the biggest lure of the war. The Vietnamese Communists had no intention of attempting to stage a second Dien Bien Phu there. The objective of the siege was William Westmoreland, not the Marine garrison. The siege was a ruse to distract Westmoreland while the real blow was prepared.

—Yet to turn the war decisively in their favor they had to achieve a masterstroke that would have the will-breaking effect on the Americans that Dien Bien Phu had had on the French. The masterstroke was Tet, 1968.

—Khe Sanh was one of the few places in South Vietnam where, except for more miserable shelling, nothing was taking place.

Sheehan also includes this quote from a Marine general. He writes:

The opinion of the Marine generals as to the wisdom of possessing Khe Sanh had not changed since Lowell English, the assistant commander of the 3rd Marine Division in 1966, had observed: “When you’re at Khe Sanh, you’re not really anywhere.”

In his history Tet! The Turning Point in the Vietnam War, Don Oberdorfer writes: “Khe Sanh was one place in Vietnam where there was no big attack at Tet.”

That passage echoes a memoir written by my friend, the novelist Larry Heinemann, who said after a postwar trip to Hanoi, when he met General Giap:

He understood quite well that the Vietnamese would win a war of attrition, even if it took a generation or more. He was perfectly willing, for instance, to let General Westmoreland think that the North Vietnamese attack at Khe Sanh was a big deal when it most certainly was not; in 1968, as in 1971 and 1973 and 1975, there were bigger fish to fry. He all but retired after reunification, having been a soldier at war for more than thirty years.

Who Won at Khe Sanh?

My own conclusion, based solely on two visits to Khe Sanh and having read a number of histories of the fighting, is that Giap never started any battles except those he intended to win, and that he saw the Marines at Khe Sanh (on an extended line to nowhere, in a remote jungle) as low-hanging fruit.

If at the cost of a major battle he could secure an important by-pass on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and in so doing envelope American lines along the DMZ, that was a gamble worth making, even if the response would come from American bombers. (To paraphrase what  General Jean-Baptiste Kléber said about Bonaparte, Giap “was the kind of general who needed an income of 10,000 men a month.”)

One of Giap’s biographers, Cecil B. Currey, writes: “Westerners have sometimes criticized Giap for trying to repeat his success at Dien Bien Phu at Khe Sanh. If this was in fact the case, who could blame him for wanting to reprise such a stunning victory?” But he adds: “Giap’s target was larger than Khe Sanh; it was all of the Republic of Viet Nam.”

In his book about Khe Sanh, journalist Gregg Jones asks: “Who won? Who lost? Was General Westmoreland duped by his North Vietnamese nemesis, General Vo Nguyen Giap? Were the North Vietnamese serious about seizing Khe Sanh or merely drawing American forces away from urban areas before the Tet Offensive? Was Khe Sanh an American ‘fiasco,’ as journalist Stanley Karnow concluded?”

Jones continues:

General Giap’s comments about Khe Sanh to the Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci are exactly what one would expect. “Oh, no,” he was quoted as saying, “Khe Sanh didn’t try to be, nor could it have been, a Dien Bien Phu. Khe Sanh wasn’t that important to us. Or it was only to the extent that it was important to the Americans—in fact, at Khe Sanh their prestige was at stake”….

As it stands, the case for Khe Sanh as a thwarted North Vietnamese coup de grâce is circumstantial. But so is the self-serving contention of General Giap and his lieutenants that they never intended to seize the American stronghold.

As it happened, both Tet and Khe Sanh were military victories for the Americans, but political defeats.

Khe Sanh Today

Khe Sanh is today, to paraphrase the English World War I poet Rupert Brooke, a remote “corner of a foreign field” that, in my mind, will be “for ever American.”

Although it’s often encased in a miasmic fog, the outlines of the base perimeter are still visible, and parked near the old runway are several captured American aircraft, including the hulking remains of a C-130 transport plane and several helicopters.

There is a small museum on the site, although both times I have been there I was alone. For whatever reasons, the Vietnamese don’t focus much on Khe Sanh, although a few Bru tribesmen hang around the site, hoping to sell dog tags, shell fragments, and orange soda to visitors.

Otherwise, Khe Sanh is as gloomy as Edgar Allen Poe’s House of Usher: “an atmosphere which had no affinity with the air of heaven, but which had reeked up from the decayed trees, and the gray wall, and the silent tarn—a pestilent and mystic vapour, dull, sluggish, faintly discernible, and leaden-hued.”

Chasing Ghosts on Hill 881 South

From the fire base, I drove about five miles to the northwest, in the direction of Hill 881 South, scene of some of the heaviest fighting during the siege. On that hill, Captain William Dabney commanded I Company, 3rd Battalion, 26th Marines during the worst of the struggles, in which waves of NVA attackers tried to overwhelm the fire base. Dabney’s company held its lines, although it suffered casualties and needed the support of B-52s.

In turn, the Vietnamese would creep close to American lines on the hilltop, hoping their proximity would limit the response of American bombers and artillery. As if on a medieval rampart, Dabney’s men had to defend themselves with small-arms fire, hand grenades, and mortar fire.

Many of the images that we have from the siege of Khe Sanh, of marines fighting in close quarters to defend a rocky hilltop base, actually came from forward bases such as 881 South. Jones writes of Dabney’s inspiring leadership:

One thing hadn’t changed: morale was high, a tribute to the tight operation run by Dabney. Men kept busy, working on the trenches and bunkers and bunny holes when it was too dangerous to go topside, and checking the wire or performing other tasks when there was fog or cloud cover to shield their activities.

At times, I could well imagine that Dabney, up there on that lonely hilltop, must have thought he was chasing ghosts—both his own and those of the enemy. (In civilian life, he was the son-in-law of decorated Marine Corps legend Lewis “Chesty” Puller, for whom American wars had been kinder, despite the many casualties suffered by the men under his command.) A Marine Corps history of the battle writes of its inconclusive conclusion:

The jaunty courage, quiet determination, and macabre humor of the men on Hill 881S exemplified the spirit of the U.S. and South Vietnamese defenders who not only defied the enemy but, in a classic 77-day struggle, destroyed him. At the same time, the fighting around the isolated combat base touched off a passionate controversy in the United States and the battle, therefore, warrants close scrutiny.

Reflecting later on the sacrifice of the Marines, many of whom fought close to the DMZ and in the hills around Khe Sanh, Neil Sheehan wrote:

In this war, 14,691 Marines were to die, three times as many as had died in Korea, a weighty loss in lives, a loss that weighed more heavily than the 24,511 Marines who had been lost during World War II. For [USMC General] Brute Krulak [who was close to President Kennedy] was to know, before most of these Marines of Vietnam had died, that all of them were to die in vain.

As much as I would have liked to see Hill 881 South, it only appeared as a distant ridge line, one of many peaks in what is otherwise a petrified landscape, with, even now, Agent Orange starkness.

Think of the Allegheny Mountains in western Pennsylvania, both soaring and claustrophobic—the backdrop, as was Vietnam, for that fatal game of Russian roulette in The Deer Hunter.

No Man’s Land

Past Hill 558, which is close to the two-lane road, my driver began getting antsy about the late hour of the day and the fact that we were heading off even Ho’s beaten trail. Nor did he think that up ahead we would find anything worth seeing in such a bleak landscape, although by now we had emerged from the fog line and could see all around hills that in the fight for Khe Sanh—to use the analogy of Gettysburg—had been Little Round Tops.

Clearly my driver had never read the 1968 conclusion about the battle that was published in the Washington Star newspaper. It reads:

To be sure, Khe Sanh will be a subject of controversy for a long time, but this much about it is indisputable: It has won a large place in the history of the Vietnam war as an inspiring example of American and Allied valor. One day, in fact, the victory over the siege may be judged a decisive turning point that finally convinced the enemy he could not win.

One of the saddest passages that I came across in my travels and my reading appears in Michael Archer’s Khe Sanh memoir, A Patch of Ground. He writes of the medal ceremony for the Marine commander during the siege:

I believe the White House ceremony for Colonel Lownds was intentionally timed to obfuscate a Pentagon decision to abandon the Khe Sanh Combat Base. However, it seemed only to magnify the issue. If Khe Sanh had been so vital to the defense of South Vietnam, justifying such enormous bloodshed, why wasn’t it still? Ceremoniously praising the great sacrifices made at Khe Sanh while at the same time surrendering it to the enemy was a contradiction many of us found difficult to accept.

All too often in a war governed largely by body counts, American soldiers and marines would fight savagely for a jungle clearing or a remote hilltop; then a day, a week or a month later, they would receive orders to pull out and return to their barracks. British Red Coats fought the American revolutionary war with the same tactics (and results).

Baritz writes in Backfire:

The grunts hated bloody fighting to take a fire base, perhaps losing buddies in the process, and then being ordered to abandon the base to fight or patrol somewhere else, and then having to endure another fire fight to recapture the first base …. One GI put it this way: “We don’t take any land. We don’t give it back. We just mutilate bodies.”

Touring around Khe Sanh in the gloomy fog, I was reminded of a passage in veteran Marc Levy’s excellent collection of Vietnam war stories, How Stevie Nearly Lost the War and Other Postwar Stories. In it he includes the following exchange:

VA Shrink: Were you in Vietnam?

Vietnam Vet: Yes.

VA Shrink: When were you there?

Vietnam Vet: Last night.

Before the car turned around and headed back to Hue, I satisfied myself with a few photographs of distant hillsides, even though such pictures will add nothing to the argument about whether Khe Sanh was a victory or a defeat.

For the moment, this corner of a foreign field is a haunted no-man’s land or, as Brooke writes in “The Soldier”, “Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.”

Up Next: By bicycle to Nui Dat and the Australian Battle of Long Tan. To read earlier installments in the series, please click here.


Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.