Tet 8

Despite the obvious differences, the superficial resemblance between Khesanh and Dienbienphu was irresistible to American observers and officials alike. “The parallels are there for all to see,” Walter Cronkite informed a CBS radio audience in early February. Marvin Kalb, the CBS correspondent at the State Department, reported that the “his¬torical ghost” of the French disaster was “casting a long shadow over Washington.” They and their colleagues were afterward criticized by Westmoreland and others for having jazzed up the comparison, but the journalists were merely echoing military and civilian sources in Washington and Saigon. Even before the encounter began, Walt Rostow had discerned from captured enemy documents that the Com¬munists were deploying to “re-enact a new Dienbienphu.” Once the fighting started, Westmoreland called the Khesanh clash a “vain at¬tempt” by the North Vietnamese “to restage Dienbienphu.”
The specter of Dienbienphu haunted nobody more than it did Lyn¬don Johnson. In 1954, as a senior member of the Senate armed services committee, he had opposed U.S. intervention to rescue the belea¬guered French bastion. Now he feared a repetition of that catastrophe at Khesanh—only this time the devastated terrain would be littered with American dead and wounded. On a trip to Australia to com¬memorate the recently deceased prime minister, he warned the Aus¬tralian cabinet that the Communists planned to resort to “kamikaze tactics” in the weeks ahead—“a wave of suicide attacks,” as he put it. By late January, with the battle raging, Khesanh became his ob¬session. Pentagon specialists had constructed a sand-table model of the Khesanh plateau in the basement situation roqm of the White House, and Johnson, dressed in a bathrobe, would prowl around the chamber during the night—-reading the latest teletype messages from the field, peering at aerial photos, requesting casualty figures. In one of the oddest demands ever imposed by a president on his top officers, he insisted that the joint chiefs of staff sign a formal declaration of faith in Westmoreland’s ability to hold Khesanh. Ordering the state¬ment from General Earle Wheeler, the chairman, Johnson said: “I don’t want any damn Dinbinphoo.”
Actually, the Communists had never regarded Khesanh to be an¬other Dienbienphu—or so several of their soldiers explained to me after the war. Perhaps, having failed to overrun the U.S. garrison, they were naturally trying to discount the significance of the engage¬ment. For the same reason, Giap sounded implausible when he later contended that Khesanh assumed an inflated importance only because the Americans chose to make it a test of their prestige. But a lower- ranking Communist officer, who had fought at Dienbienphu and Khesanh, underlined a point that seemed to me to be credible: “At Dienbienphu, the French and ourselves massed for what we both expected to be a final battle. The Americans, however, were strong everywhere in the south. Thus we realized from the beginning that we could not beat them decisively in a single encounter like Khesanh. ” Why, then, did the North Vietnamese and Vietcong forces submit to such horrendous losses at Khesanh? Nearly every Communist of¬ficer to whom I posed the question offered roughly the same answer. The battles at Khesanh and elsewhere in the hinterlands before and during the Tet offensive were intended to draw the Americans away from South Vietnam’s population centers, thereby leaving them naked to assault. Many American experts shared that view at the time. Re¬tired Brigadier General S. L. A. Marshall, a noted commentator on military affairs, perceived Khesanh to be “just a feint.” An official American military history of the period also concluded that the Com-munists had besieged the base “in order to divert a major portion of our resources to a remote area” while they attacked the country’s cities and towns. Major General Lowell English, a U.S. marine commander at Khesanh, similarly decried Westmoreland’s decision to hold the bastion—calling it “a trap” laid by the enemy “to force you into the expenditure of absolutely unreasonable amounts of men and materiel to defend a piece of terrain that wasn’t worth a damn.”
But Westmoreland fell for the enemy ruse. From the start of the Tet offensive, he dismissed the Communist onslaught against the cities as simply “a diversionary effort” contrived to distract attention away from Khesanh and the northern regions of South Vietnam. His ex¬aggerated focus on Khesanh was finally punctured a few days after he ended his tour in Vietnam in June, when the fortress was abandoned— a withdrawal conducted in secret to avoid jarring the American people, who had been told that U.S. marines were dying to secure the “crucial anchor” of the defense chain in the sector.
The Khesanh fiasco was overshadowed, however, by allegations that Westmoreland had either misinterpreted or deliberately doctored intelligence reports prior to the Tet outbreaks. Sam Adams, then a young CIA analyst, later accused Westmoreland and his staff of scaling down estimates of Communist strength in an attempt to justify their contention that they were making progress in the war. His own re¬search led Adams to calculate that the total North Vietnamese and Vietcong force in South Vietnam on the eve of Tet comprised some six hundred thousand men. He charged Westmoreland and his aides with shrinking the real figure by excluding guerrillas, cadres and other auxiliaries from the enemy roster. The simmering controversy boiled up into a bitter legal stew in 1982, when Westmoreland sued CBS and Adams for defaming him in a television documentary inspired by the indictment. But the actual issue in the dispute was clouded.
Rival American agencies in Vietnam had regularly transmitted di¬vergent sets of statistics back to Washington, invariably selecting the data that served their particular interests. Westmoreland played this numbers game. But it is doubtful that his deception deprived Lyndon Johnson of the facts, as Adams alleged. Johnson always had alterna¬tive sources of information. Thus, if he chose to share Westmore¬land’s rosy outlook, he did so because he needed all the optimistic evidence he could muster to show his domestic critics that the war was being won.

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