Tet 7

Westmoreland was delighted. The Communists were at long last waging his brand of big conventional warfare where he wanted to fight—in the hinterlands far from South Vietnam’s cities—‘and his stupendous military machine could show dramatic results. The fire¬power he brought to bear was unprecedented, awesome, almost be¬yond the bounds of imagination. At Conthien alone, nearly eight hundred B-52 flights dropped twenty-two thousand tons of bombs as fighter-bombers and warships in the South China Sea also pum- meled the area, reducing its gentle slopes to a bleak landscape of craters and charred tree stumps. The jungles surrounding Dakto were pounded by three hundred B-52 missions, more than two thousand fighter-bomber assaults and one hundred and seventy thousand artil¬lery shells, and chemical warfare units denuded the few remaining shreds of foliage with herbicides. The staggering North Vietnamese and Vietcong losses over the three-month period boosted the estimated number of Communist troops killed in action during the year to some ninety thousand, inspiring Westmoreland to proclaim on a visit to Washington in November that “the enemy’s hopes are bankrupt.”
Back in Vietnam six weeks later, however, he focused on an even larger battle looming around Khesanh, a rolling region as lovely as the hills of Tuscany. Khesanh straddled Route 9, an old French road linking the Vietnamese coast to the Laotian market towns along the Mekong. A small camp had been built there by the U.S. special forces to recruit and train local mountain tribesmen, and Westmoreland began to expand it during the summer as a springboard against Com¬munist sanctuaries in Laos—a proposed move that President Johnson would afterward reject. Westmoreland stockpiled the base with am¬munition and other materiel, refurbished its primitive airstrip and sent in a U. S. marine battalion to bulwark its defenses. But Khesanh instead became the site of a huge confrontation whose significance was to be debated long after the war had ended. The battle dragged on for two months becoming almost daily fare for American television viewers already satiated by the spectacle of the Tet offensive shattering South Vietnam’s cities and towns.
Late in 1967, an accumulation of U.S. intelligence reports indicated that four North Vietnamese infantry divisions, stiffened by two ar¬tillery regiments and armored units—a total of forty thousand men— were converging on Khesanh. Westmoreland moved six thousand U.S. marines into the sector, and he drafted plans to deluge the enemy from the air in a bombing cascade appropriately code-named Oper¬ation Niagara. He also instructed his aides to study the feasibility of using tactical nuclear weapons—until a directive from Washington cut short the research out of fear that leaks to the press would intensify antiwar protests at home. Westmoreland later denounced the ban, arguing that the use of nuclear weapons could conceivably have com¬pelled the Communists to capitulate, in the same way that two atomic bombs “had spoken convincingly” to the Japanese leaders during World War II—a complaint that showed how narrowly he perceived the conflict.
Westmoreland estimated that the Communists were closing in on Khesanh as part of a broad maneuver designed to grab South Vietnam’s northernmost provinces prior to negotiations—just as they had thrown themselves against the French at Dienbienphu in order to buttress their bargaining posture at the Geneva conference of 1954. American officers in Vietnam suddenly began to read the available literature on Dienbienphu. Westmoreland also assembled his staff to listen to a lecture on the French experience, but he shut off discussion of the subject after hearing the grim account. “We are not, repeat not, going to be defeated at Khesanh,” he announced. “I will tolerate no talking or even thinking to the contrary.”
The Dienbienphu analogy was preposterous. The French had been trapped in an inaccessible valley with only a few artillery pieces, while the Americans had a formidable array of howitzers and mortars at Khesanh as well as long-range guns capable of blasting the enemy positions from outside the perimeter. In contrast to the French, who had lacked aircraft, the U.S. force could rely on a formidable fleet of helicopters and cargo planes to carry in supplies and replacements as well as evacuate the wounded. Above all, the besieged marines were able to count on the B-52s, which would drench the surrounding North Vietnamese and Vietcong troops with a total of more than seventy-five thousand tons of explosives over a nine-week span—the deadliest deluge of firepower ever unloaded on a tactical target in the history of warfare.
The ratio of American to Communist casualties was also to highlight the difference between Dienbienphu and Khesanh. Approximately eight thousand Vietminh and two thousand French army soldiers died at Dienbienphu. But the struggle for Khesanh cost the Communists at least ten thousand lives in exchange for fewer than five hundred U.S. marines killed in action. In Hanoi after the war, a Communist veteran of the battle recalled the carnage inflicted on his comrades, disclosing to me that some North Vietnamese and Vietcong units suffered as much as 90 percent losses under the relentless downpour of American bombs, napalm and artillery shells. Giap, who was rarely troubled by heavy human tolls, flew to the front late in January 1968 to inspect the situation personally—and he nearly became a casualty himself when a flight of thirty-six B-52s dropped a thousand tons of bombs near his field headquarters. Westmoreland had ordered the air strike after his electronic experts suspected, from intercepting enemy radio traffic, that a prominent Communist figure might be in the area.

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