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The Route 9-Khe Sanh Campaign during Spring and Summer of 1968: A perspective from other side

Since the end of the Route 9-Khe Sanh Campaign during Spring and Summer of 1968, there have been many articles, researches and commentaries written by Western researchers and scholars, including American generals directly involved in the battles. From various angles, most of these writers believed that the United States had been heavily defeated in this unique campaign.

Khe Sanh was an area of strategic importance to both warring parties. As for the Armed Forces for the Liberation of South Vietnam, this area served as a bridge connecting the northern great rear with the southern great front line. As for U.S. forces, this was the strategic defence line to counter all offensives launched by the North Vietnamese Army. Consequently, both sides resolved to occupy and keep by all means. Given the strategic importance of this area, both sides kept a close watch on the other in order to work out their strategies. Since the second half of 1967, when the Pentagon had known about maneuver of units of the Armed Forces for the Liberation of South Vietnam across the battlefield, it foresaw a major military operation launched by the North Vietnamese Army.

It was within this context that both the White House and Saigon regime held many unusual meetings. U.S. officials, generals and military officers debated whether North Vietnam would go into a Dien Bien Phu battle against U.S. forces in Route 9-Khe Sanh. Having been completely obsessed with that scenario, U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson requested his generals to “sign their names in blood” to pledge that “Khe Sanh would not be defeated.” Accordingly, William Westmoreland, commander of U.S. troops during Vietnam War, immediately ordered to deploy 3 U.S. divisions to the northern part of South Vietnam. In spite of designating military operations of the Armed Forces for the Liberation of South Vietnam in Khe Sanh as important indicators of a military campaign launched by the communist side, Westmoreland still confidently declared that given U.S. combat methods, modernized, powerful weapons and equipment, and the robustness of Khe Sanh, this military base would bring about a victory for Americans. “The Vietnamese communists have no intention of making the second Dien Bien Phu there. They aim to target William Westmoreland, not the besieged fortress. That place is used to deceive the U.S. commander,” said Neil Sheehan. Indeed, the Vietnamese Ministry of National Defence not only used the Route 9-Khe Sanh Offensive Campaign as a strategic deception but also undertook this campaign to seize this area with a view to connecting the strategic line of communication from the north to the south.

In his capacity as an observer of the Route 9-Khe Sanh Campaign, Michael MacLear reported on the fierceness of the campaign right from its inception, saying “in the early morning of 21 January 1968, the besiege of Khe Sanh was started by North Vietnam’s long-range artillery shelling with awful accuracy.” French newspapers, especially the daily ones, offered extensive coverage of fighting situation in Khe Sanh and judged that the U.S. forces had considerable difficulty in logistics support. These newspapers said “the shortage of combat rations and water had become extremely serious at entrenched fortresses at the tops of the hills surrounding Khe Sanh. U.S. troops defending the 881st and 861st hills were plagued with hunger, thirst and raggedness.” The International Review had a straightforward line: “The situation for U.S and Saigon regime has got worse in every aspect. No one knows for sure about the final outcomes of the war, but all peace-loving people in Western countries hate it. The war itself may come to an end soon.”

Reports sent to the security section of U.S. Embassy to Saigon in June 1968 illuminated U.S. generals’ confession that “Khe Sanh became the first key military base U.S. forces had to withdraw as a result of the adversary’s pressure.” Publication of The Spark on 27 June in Saigon described in details that: “U.S troops’ withdrawal from Khe Sanh was well-prepared but they were still detected and attacked…”. Publication of The Baltimore on 26 June 1968 in France also headlined U.S. withdrawal from Khe Sanh, a heavily defended military base, with a dear price and tragic consequence.

After its withdrawal, U.S. government was worried about domestic mass media. Four months beforehand, U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson had proclaimed that U.S. troops would keep Khe Sanh by all means. White House spokesman even declared “victory” and said that “Khe Sanh had been rescued.” However, John Carol, a reporter from The Baltimore Sun, exposed the truth when saying: “U.S. troops were just forced to abandon Khe Sanh on 24 June.” U.S. Command rejected this information but John Carol affirmed that, “both U.S. Marines and people from North Vietnam know about this event.” The White House’s plot to conceal this defeat was unmasked, which gave rise to a new wave of protest from peace-loving people in both U.S. and other countries in the world. Obviously, all of the U.S. calculation to block the strategic logistics line of North Vietnam went wrong. The judgment of history on Khe Sanh was that the U.S. lost the battles. It also inclined toward blaming General William Westmoreland for the failure rather than acknowledging the truth about an epic in which the whole country had been defended firmly during the general offensive from January to April 1968.

Although there remains disagreements about several matters pertaining to hostilities in Route 9-Khe Sanh, as for the Armed Forces for the Liberation of South Vietnam, victory of the Route 9-Khe Sanh Offensive Campaign during Spring and Summer of 1968 contributed to dealing a severe blow to U.S. imperialist aggression and forced the administration of President Johnson to deescalate the war, halt the bombing north of the 20th Parallel, and send its representatives to Paris Conference. As far as the U.S. was concerned, failure in Route 9-Khe Sanh deepened the split within the U.S. and promoted the anti-war movement among people from various walks of life. It is exactly what historian Ronald Spector argued: “There are not any appropriate reasons for considering Khe Sanh battle as the U.S. victory as what they have claimed. The withdrawal from Khe Sanh military base has engraved on many Americans’ minds as a symbol of a meaningless sacrifice. It was messy tactics that led U.S. war in Vietnam to defeat.”

Since the end of hostilities in Route 9-Khe Sanh, strategic planners, generals and journalists of major magazines from the U.S and Western countries have devoted a great deal of effort to research, analysis and assessment, and unanimously pointed out some causes of U.S. failure.

First, the U.S. lost the battle because they failed to provide logistics support to their troops in Khe Sanh. Over 6,000 U.S. troops in Khe Sanh military base were completely obsessed with death. U.S. veteran John Scott Jones is still haunted by that scare. “We hid inside small bunkers where a lot of bombs were dropped and many soldiers were dead and injured!” he groaned. In a similar vein, the Associated Press made an observation: “Living in Khe Sanh is just like prisoners being executed by an electric chair.”

Second, the Armed Forces for the Liberation of South Vietnam had established a system of trenches and battlefields, tested in the Dien Bien Phu Campaign in 1954, to confront U.S. modernized weapons and equipment. A report written by U.S. commander in Khe Sanh revealed that they had to use up to 1,000 artillery shells to destroy only 30-metre trench and some soldiers of the Armed Forces for the Liberation of South Vietnam.

Third, the Armed Forces for the Liberation of South Vietnam launched a strategic diversionary attack while resolving to seize Route 9-Khe Sanh. Michael MacLear, author of the book titled “Vietnam: The Ten Thousand Day War,” said: “Attacks during Mau Than New Year made people think that Khe Sanh was just a siege. In that event, the North Vietnam was a master of diversion.” This position was further consolidated by an interview with General Vo Nguyen Giap in September 1994. The General said: “I know how powerful U.S. Air Force is. It is impossible to repeat the Dien Bien Phu Campaign. My practical goals are to inflict heavy casualties on U.S forces, make them bogged down, and finally withdraw from that place. In fact, I achieved those objectives after fighting for 6 months.”

Fourth, the Armed Forces for the Liberation of South Vietnam, which possessed a corps of talented, experienced military commanders and soldiers, collaborated with other forces to mount successive attacks on the adversary (U.S. forces). They were the key players, who were able to generate a major breakthrough to win a swift victory without incurring great losses. Cultivation of political, spiritual factors and operation planning, in particular, contributed to strengthening their resolve and courage to fight and win the battles.

However, there are some books and newspapers published in U.S. trying to plead for U.S. miscalculation since their establishment of Khe Sanh defence line (in 1962) until the end of hostilities in Route 9 – Khe Sanh. Anyway, U.S. failure in Khe Sanh was irreversible. The New York Times reporting from Hong Kong also emphasized that: “70 per cent of Asian people believe that the reason for U.S. to abandon Khe Sanh is that they were defeated by their adversary.”

Senior Colonel, Doctor Truong Mai Huong, Deputy Director of the Institute of Vietnamese Military History

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Comrade Vo Chi Cong – A talented leader of our Party and State
Life and career of comrade Vo Chi Cong were closely connected with our Party and people’s glorious historical events in the 20th century. He was a role model as a communist. With his noble qualities, he was an excellent student of President Ho Chi Minh. He expressed his absolute loyalty to our revolution’s goal and ideal, while dedicating himself to our Party and people’s revolutionary cause.