Khe Sanh, is located in South Vietnam near the Laos Border and was the westernmost American stronghold near the Demilitarized Zone1. In 1962 Army Special Forces built a small camp near the Khe Sanh town and in 1966 a garrison was built adjacent to the camp5. In 1967 the People’s Army of North Vietnam (PAVN) started building forces and US officials worried that Khe Sanh would be targeted for an attack. General William Westmoreland was the Commander of the US Military Assistance Command in Vietnam and he anticipated the attack on the garrison and planned accordingly5.
Valley of Death:
On January 21st, 1968 roughly 20,000 North Vietnamese Army (NVA) soldiers surrounded and attacked Khe Sanh, which held roughly 6,000 US Marines and their South Vietnamese ally army soldiers1. The siege would go on for 77 days taking countless lives more heavily on the NVA side, thus making it the longest and bloodiest battle of the war. Khe Sanh started to be referred to as the “Valley of Death” due to all the bloodshed7. The continual artillery barrages and rain storms forced the marines to constantly have to fix and repair their fighting stations to the point where all major buildings and fighting positions were connected by deep trenches like the one pictured here1. The ‘hospitals’ were made underground but the doctors had to constantly be in vests and helmets7.
General Westmoreland, ~ “the first time in history where a siege of that magnitude was broken by air power.”
If it was not for the air support the Americans had, the battle would have had a much different outcome. Almost immediately after the fighting began the only way to receive reinforcements was by air. However, even this was not simple. It came to the point where the planes could not even land to drop off the supplies. The NVA would shoot down the planes and constant firing made it difficult for the planes that did land to get back airborne. To combat this supplies were dropped out of planes with parachutes. Although, if they needed to land they would wait till it was dark or used clouds of phosphorus to cover them1. B-52 fighter planes, codenamed Arc Light, were one of the major advantages the Americans had5. Each fighter plane could carry 500-750 pound bombs and could make 50 flights a day1. This made it so the NVA could never truly attack the base. In the end roughly 100,000 tons of US bombs were used near this area7.
A memorandum was sent about the situation recommending US marines stay in Khe Shan and explaining the importance of the area saying that, 1- it was the western anchor of defense, 2- abandoning it would give the enemy easier access to the South and coastal area, and 3- abandoning it would give major propaganda wins for the opposition8. President Johnson agreed with Westmoreland’s argument that the base should be held at all costs. Khe Sanh was repeatedly compared to the humiliating defeat by the French in the battle called Dien Bien Phu. The US government did not want this to be the same outcome because it would give the North Vietnamese a stronger position in future negotiations that would have to take place7.
This was a time in America were opposition to the war was at record levels. Khe Sanh became a household name and played on TV and radios every night. The Tet Offensive interrupted the coverage of this battle but came and went leaving the major coverage of the war focused on this ongoing battle7. By the middle of February, it was a symbol of the US’s fight against communism in Southeast Asia1. Yet, for the soldiers it was “Hell on Earth5.” There was even some battle field humor going on where soldiers would write messages on the back of their vest or make signs that went in the camp like the ones shown above1.
President Johnson and Westmoreland’s worry about propaganda was not unjustified. In addition to the battle field humor, propaganda was being used back home in support of the war and antiwar propaganda. Two iconic images and symbols of American, Mickey Mouse and Uncle Sam, were used very differently below. Khe Sanh was the height of the talk about the war.
History does not just stop. The memories live on for much longer than the actual event itself. According to Barbie Zelizer memory is processual and ever changing. The land at Khe Sanh has changed despite the new growth of trees and bushes, the site itself will forever be one where thousands of lives were lost9. It has a particular meaning for those that fought there and in Vietnam like Don Ross. For him this is a site that reminds him of a time where he could not refuse the call to serve his nation and a time where he lost a lot of friends7. However, it also has a universal meaning for Americans. To this day the war is talked about in mostly bitter terms and is a symbol of a lot of pain, suffering, and regret. There is a material site of memory for the entire war at the Vietnam Memorial Wall but there is also a specific site of material memory for the Battle of Khe Sahn in Arlington cemetery9.
It is by a tree planted in honor of all those that died at Khe Sanh2. This is a physical place that people can go to and remember those that died. It is a lot more accessible than traveling to Khe Sanh itself. An area stilled covered with craters and holes and red soil showing the blood and damage caused by the fighting7.
Many of the stories of Khe Sanh have been forgotten and or silenced. Through pictures, radio, propaganda, and survivor stories we can try to understand what went down those 77 days but the true extent of the event can never be understood. How the men slept, what they ate, what did they have to do to survive are only some of the things that we can only mostly piece together. However, what about the fear in their hearts, their families, their regrets. These things are lost to history for now. This has happened because the public memory has tried to push the war under the rug. The elites of the time had control of the memory but now there seems to be a form of emergent memory forming6. 50 years later and we are still talking about the war yet with more open ears. The stigma around the war is not as intense which has allowed for a deeper look into what happened and allowing us to uncover some of the missing pieces. Yet, Khe Sanh 50 years later still marks a time in history where tensions were high and people were divided. It stood for a symbol of America’s fight against the communist Vietnamese and even today we still see it standing for the same thing and still providing emotions for many Americans1.
By: Olivia Smith
Sources (marked my subscripts above)
1. Brimelow, Ben. “50 Years Ago, US Troops Bunkered down for the Vietnam War’s Most Infamous Siege – Here’s How the Battle of Khe Sanh Unfolded.” Business Insider, Business Insider, 26 Jan. 2018.
2. Bruton , Makali. “Khe Sanh Veterans, a War Memorial.” , a War Memorial, 10 Oct. 2016.
3. G. “Where the Wars Were: Journey to Vietnam, Laos & Cambodia.” BATTLE OF KHE SANH: THEN AND NOW, Blogger, 25 Apr. 2013.
4.Greenberg, David. “The Vietnam War then and Now.”ProQuest, Sep 14, 2017.
5.History.com Staff, History.com Staff. “Khe Sanh.” History.com, A&E Networks, 2011.
6. John Bodnar. Remaking America: Public Memory, Commemoration, and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century (Princeton 1994), 13-20.
7. Ross, Don. “`Valley of Death’ is Far Different Now.” USA TODAY (pre-1997 Fulltext), May 26, 1994, pp. 04A. ProQuest.
8. United States Joint Chiefs,of Staff. The Situation at Khe Sanh. , 1968. ProQuest.
9. Zelizer, Barbie. “Reading the Past Against the Grain: The Shape of Memory Studies,” Critical Studies in Mass Communications (June 1995): 214-39.
Media: Youtube and Extra Pictures
10. “Mickey Mouse in Vietnam.” YouTube, uploaded by Foo Bar, June 1, 2013.
11. Propaganda in War: Vietnam and Falklands.
12. “The Battle of Khe Sanh-1968, Today in History.” YouTube, uploaded by AP Archive, Jan. 20, 2017.