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Last Stand at Khe Sanh: The U.S. Marines’ Finest Hour in Vietnam

 by Gregg Jones, Da Capo Press, Perseus Books Group, 2014

A book panaramic in scope yet heart-wrenchingly personal, Gregg Jones’ Last Stand at Khe Sanh: The U.S. Marines’ Finest Hour in Vietnam recounts the epic siege and enduring controversy that surrounds it.

Defended primarily by the 26th Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division, Khe Sanh anchored a line of bases and strong points that stretched west from the mouth of the Cua Viet River on the South China Sea to the Khe Sanh plateau, south of the Demilitarized Zone. Four hilltop outposts guarded its northern approaches.

General William Westmoreland saw the base as a jumping-off point for an invasion of Laos. The Marines, however, questioned the wisdom of maintaining an isolated camp in the rugged hill country near the border.

Ominously, by January 1968 an estimated 20,000 North Vietnamese—more than three times the number of Americans defending Khe Sanh—had converged on the base. North Vietnamese artillery, rockets and mortars and heavy field guns, battered the base, day after day, for the next two months. Weary, shell-shocked Marines learned to dash for cover, and the frantic scramble that ensued was soon christened the “Khe Sanh shuffle.”

As fears of an impending assault on the base mounted, President Lyndon B. Johnson, slumping in the polls and haunted by the ghosts of Dien Bien Phu, convened an urgent meeting on January 29. Westmoreland, convinced that the Marines could inflict a decisive defeat on the NVA at Khe Sanh, had advised General Earl Wheeler, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that the base could be held.

Halfway around the world, in cities and towns across South Vietnam, Communist forces went on the attack. News of the Tet Offensive rocked Washington, and some suggested that Khe Sanh had been nothing more than an elaborate ruse to draw American forces away from the urban areas under assault. Westmoreland countered that the urban attacks were a ruse to draw American forces away from Khe Sanh.

Alarmed, Johnson briefly considered employing tactical nuclear weapons to spare the besieged base. Westmoreland assured the president that the massive air and artillery strikes were sufficient.

Jones, drawing extensively on interviews conducted with veterans of the battle, poignantly re-creates the miserable, subterranean hell in which the Marines fought and died, determined to outlast the North Vietnamese.

Badly battered after weeks of punishing air and artillery strikes, the North Vietnamese began withdrawing troops from Khe Sanh in February and March.

Johnson, his administration in ruins, announced March 31 he would not seek re-election. The following day, Army General John J. Tolson launched a joint Army-Marine counteroffensive to push the North Vietnamese from their siege positions around Khe Sanh. Elements of the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment, entered the base a week later.

On July 5, the Khe Sanh combat base officially closed. Legendary North Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap would insist, perhaps self-servingly, that Khe Sanh was of little strategic importance, an assertion later echoed by revered war correspondent Neil Sheehan.

Skeptical, Jones shrewdly suggests that the North Vietnamese siege might have been both a ruse, as Sheehan claimed in his Pulitzer Prize–winning book A Bright Shining Lie, and an opportunity to deliver a war-ending coup de grâce.

Jones, to his credit, acknowledges that Giap was not the principal architect behind the North Vietnamese campaign at Khe Sanh. Curiously, however, the author then treats Giap as exactly that, arguing that the account was written “as events were viewed by the American military command and President Johnson.”

Nevertheless, Last Stand at Khe Sanh is a moving tribute to the men who served— and suffered—in the siege.


Originally published in the April 2015 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.