TODAY IN HISTORY
January 21, 1968
One of the most publicized and controversial battles of the Vietnam war begins
The Battle of Khe Sanh began on January 21, 1968, when forces from the People’s Army of North Vietnam (PAVN) carried out a massive artillery bombardment on the U.S. Marine garrison at Khe Sanh, located in northwest South Vietnam near the Laotian border. For the next 77 days, U.S. Marines and their South Vietnamese allies fought off an intense siege of the garrison, in one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War.
In response, General William Westmoreland, commander of the U.S. forces in Vietnam, was ready to use nukes..
"In late January, General Westmoreland had warned that if the situation near the DMZ and at Khe Sanh worsened drastically, nuclear or chemical weapons might have to be used," said a separate 106-page declassified, "top secret" report titled, "The Air Force in Southeast Asia: Toward a Bombing Halt, 1968," written by the Office of Air Force History in 1970.
"This prompted Air Force chief of staff, General John McConnell, to press, although unsuccessfully, for Joint Chiefs of Staff authority to request Pacific Command to prepare a plan for using low-yield nuclear weapons to prevent a catastrophic loss of the U.S. Marine base," it said.
A secret memorandum reported by U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, sent to U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson on 19 February 1968, was declassified in 2005. It reveals the nuclear matter being excluded because of terrain peculiarity inside South Vietnam that reduces the effect of tactical nuclear weapons.
"Because of terrain and other conditions peculiar to our operations in South Vietnam, it is inconceivable that the use of nuclear weapons would be recommended there against either Viet Cong or North Vietnamese forces. Robert McNamara, signed"
In the face of criticism that he had fallen victim to the North Vietnamese diversionary tactic, Westmoreland defended his decision to defend Khe Sanh, and claimed the battle as a victory in that it prevented the enemy from gaining control over the northwest corner of South Vietnam and inflicted heavy losses on PAVN forces. As antiwar sentiment mounted on the home front in the wake of the Tet Offensive, the Johnson administration had lost confidence in the general’s strategy of attrition and his claims of progress in the war effort. On March 31, Johnson announced he was halting most of the bombing attacks in North Vietnam and opening peace negotiations; he also withdrew his candidacy for reelection. General Creighton W. Abrams replaced Westmoreland as MACV head in June 1968, and on July 5 he closed the U.S. Marine base at Khe Sanh.
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