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Siege of Khe Sanh during the Vietnam War

Throughout the later decades of the twentieth century, the United States’ resolve to contain communism peaked in the Vietnam War — the longest military conflict to never be officially declared a war in the United States’ history. Although against the will of many of the North and South Vietnamese citizens, the United States pledged their aid to the South Vietnamese Army to fight both the North Vietnamese Army, a threat of unifying communism, and the Viet Cong, a guerilla fighting band in South Vietnam. As a draft forced young American men into the steamy, impenetrable jungles with which the Viet Cong were quite familiar and militaristically adept, construction on remote combat bases was occurring in increasing numbers. These bases lay in a hostile land with constant threat of blockade leading to possible abandonment, and they served as the setting for potential battle locations between the United States and the collective communist forces. One such outpost, an independently operating United States Marine base designed to aid in reconnaissance attacks against northern enemy supply lines along the Ho Chi Minh trail. The base symbolized the violence and seemingly unavoidable futility of the United States’ involvement in an unwilling country as the American soldiers at Khe Sanh, the most militarily superior American base in Vietnam, withstood a seventy-seven day siege.

In the early hours of January 21, 1968 the siege of Khe Sanh, the longest single battle of the Vietnam War, began as North Vietnamese Army forces embodied the building tension with a bombardment of bullets, mortars, and missiles that would kill eighteen Marines instantly, injure forty more, and destroy the majority of ammunition and fuel supplies within the first two days of the encounter. President Lyndon Johnson and United States officials had previously and controversially decided to defend rather than abandon the highly isolated outpost, but continuous attacks and the Tet Offensive from January 30 to January 31, 1968 strained the attempt at defense. Within two months over thirteen-hundred rounds of artillery had been fired upon the desperate Marine base and its surrounding outposts or “hills,” and bunkers were rebuilt to withstand an additional twenty-two millimeter of rounds more than the standard sixty-millimeter guarantee. With constant assault there was little opportunity for supply drop-offs, causality pick-ups, or relief transports, and water shortages always seemed imminent. The literally stranded, surrounded, and outnumbered soldiers would often gaze at a long-awaited helicopter attempting to reach an air strip only to see it shot down or the supplies land in dangerously unreachable ground. After several weeks of tense preparations and relative inactivity that was almost as nerve-wracking as the assails, the North Vietnam Army produced a colossal attack on Khe Sanh on March 22 with over one-thousand rounds at a minimum of one-hundred each hour. As American forces responded with bombs during ferocious night skirmishes, active patrolling to keep trench line penetration attempts at bay, and secure air support when feasible, home front Americans relived the trauma with daily newspaper articles and nightly television reports that intensified the belief in the fearful possibility of a Northern Vietnamese and Vietcong victory.

After seventy-seven days under full-scale siege at Khe Sanh, the frantically distraught American Forces were finally able to retake a strategically essential transportation path known as Route 9 to end the battle. Due to this newly safe passage, transportable American units were able to swarm the base by June 1968 and relieve the anxious soldiers from their defense station. After an apprehensive battle of attrition and sacrifice of life and nerves, United States General Westmoreland ordered the hard fought for base of Khe Sanh to not only be deserted but also destroyed. Although the siege at Khe Sanh would historically be remembered as an American victory with an outstanding ratio, from fifty Vietnamese deaths per one American death to seventy-five Vietnamese deaths per one American death the battle was not a complete American victory. In fact Khe Sanh only served as a military victory for America, but more significantly served as a psychosomatic victory for pro-communist Vietnamese forces. The statistics of American deaths were faulty as well, as eligibility of being termed “killed in action” at Khe Sanh required meeting very strict criteria. With many different operations taking place during the months of the siege, such as Operations VIRGINIA, PRAIRIE IV, CROCKETT, ARDMORE, KINGFISHER, SCOTLAND I, NIAGARA, PEGASUS, DELAWARE, and SCOTLAND II respectively, many deaths were able to be written off under different operations in order to keep the American causality numbers low and allow a victory for the United States to be declared thus keeping positive morale.

In all reality, the siege of Khe Sanh was the second deadliest Vietnam War battle, in terms of single actions, with two-hundred-five American deaths. Lasting from January 20, 1968 through April 14, 1968, the siege of Khe Sanh was also one of the longest Vietnam War battles. It also had a noteworthy effect on the morale of both the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong, and the stunning publicity gripped the American nation as they waited to see how the trapped Marines — Americans surrounded by enemies and unfathomable vegetation, under constant and devastating fire, unable to receive militaristic or emotional aid, and cut off from any socially endearing outside contact — would fare within their combat base of democracy amid a sea of communism.

No matter the spin history has placed upon the siege of Khe Sanh, the inability of the American military to break a siege for seventy-seven long and fateful days represented the future conclusion of a war in which the United States’ aid against communism was unwanted.

Research by Sarah Lilly
Volunteer for the Cold War Museum
Cosby High School

Brush, Peter. “Recounting the Casualties at Khe Sanh.” 2006. 20 May 2008 .

Doehrman, Dave. “In Remembrance.” Khe Sanh Veterans Home Page. 23 February 1997. 12 May 2008 .

— a 77 day Siege.” Vietnam War — America’s longest War. 20 May 2008 .

“Siege of Khe Sanh.” Vietnam War. 2003. 20 May 2008 .

“Statistics.” Vietnam War Timeline. 15 April 2005. 12 May 2008 .

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