Saturday, February 3, 2018

The Test of a Nation's Will

Fifty years ago, one of the biggest battles of the Vietnam War got under way:
The Battle of Khe Sanh began 50 years ago this week when roughly 20,000 North Vietnamese troops surrounded an isolated combat base held by roughly 5,500 Marines. The marines could not be reinforced or resupplied except by air, and the enemy had attacked during monsoon season, when the weather would limit flights. General William Westmoreland, commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam, ordered them to fight to hold the base rather than evacuate.

The North Vietnamese hoped to repeat the sort of victory won years earlier at Dien Bien Phu, when similarly besieged French forces were overrun and slaughtered.

President Johnson followed the 77-day ordeal with a scale model of the battlefield in the Oval Office. The public read about the besieged marines in newspapers as the fighting unfolded: the American servicemen bombarded by artillery and reliant on resupply from aircrafts that came under heavy fire on approach and departure.
Eventually the skies cleared, the Americans brought in more troops, and the North Vietnamese called off their attack, a victory which led to much crowing at Westmoreland's headquarters. Conor Friedersdorf calls attention to the official after action report on the battle, released in 1969. The preface states:
In the extreme northwestern corner of South Vietnam there stands a monument to the free world. Unlike those which commemorate the victories of past wars, this one was not built on marble or bronze but the sacrifices of men who fought and died at this remote outpost to halt the spread of Communism. This is the story of those men – the defenders of Khe Sanh – and the epic struggle which not only denied the North Vietnamese Army a needed victory but reaffirmed to the world the intention of the United States to hold the line in Southeast Asia. In addition to having been a contest of men and machines, this was a contest of a nation's will.
Woe to false prophets, and all that.


pithom said...

Wasn't Khe Sanh an actual U.S. defeat? The U.S. ended the battle by withdrawing from the area.

John said...

The US eventually withdrew, but not until after the North Vietnamese had withdrawn their attacking force. Tactically it was a victory. But whether the North Vietnamese were really trying to take the post is disputed. Some Vietnamese officers claimed after the war that they were just trying to distract the US from the upcoming Tet offensive, or just trying to bleed them. But I have now read that actual wartime documents show the North Vietnamese high command really did want to take the post, and were very disappointed when they failed.