Table of Contents
Chapter 1. The Siege of Khe Sanh in the eyes of the American policymakers in Saigon and Washington.
Chapter 2. The news media's interpretation of the Siege of Khe Sanh.
In the Year of the Monkey 1968 the North Vietnamese and their southern allies, the National Liberation Front (Viet Cong), launched their biggest and boldest offensive so far in the Vietnam War against the South Vietnamese Government and their allies, the USA. The surprise attacks coincided with the Vietnamese New Year known as Tet, hence the name "the Tet Offensive".
The Tet Offensive began with the January 30-31 surprise attacks, involving perhaps 84.000 men in the first waves against most of South Vietnam's major cities and towns. Sappers hit the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. North Vietnamese regulars pressed the siege of the Marine outpost at Khe Sanh and for three weeks occupied most of the former imperial city of Hue. Not since major U.S. forces first entered Vietnam in 1965 had North Vietnamese undertaken so ambitious a military effort, aimed largely at South Vietnamese installations amid calls for a popular uprising against the Thieu regime and its American allies.
The surprise and ferociousness of the Offensive caught the American and South Vietnamese forces completely off-guard, and at home it came as a horrible shock both to the public and official Washington. Immediately the American public turned its attention towards Vietnam and in particular the besieged Marine compound at Khe Sanh. The importance of Khe Sanh was not just perceived by the U.S. military but also by the news media. During the Tet Offensive it would see more media coverage than any other place in Vietnam. It was the most fought over objective during the Tet offensive and after the siege ended both sides would claim victory. The U.S. Commander of all American forces in Vietnam William C. Westmoreland claimed that the Communists at Khe Sanh had tried to recreate their victory over the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. While the North Vietnamese commander General Giap stated that the siege was a diversion, meant to draw American troops to the Khe Sanh area and thus deplete the rest of South Vietnam of forces, in preparation for the Tet Offensive.
However, there was a third part who played a role in the Tet Offensive and Siege of Khe Sanh, namely the American news media. The sudden penetration of downtown Saigon by Viet Cong sapper teams impacted personally on correspondents' lives. And daily, reporters in the field vividly brought the conflict home to the American people. The Siege of Khe Sanh was one of the best stories during the entire war; it filled a journalistic need that was exploited to the outmost.
On January 1, 1968 there were 181 Americans accredited as newsmen (plus 111 Vietnamese and 162 "Third Country" nationals). On February 2, there were 196 Americans, on February 29 there were 248 Americans (119 Vietnamese and 260 others); by March 31, 1968 as the prospect of further drama waned, the numbers had declined to 232 Americans (123 Vietnamese and 235 others). Khe Sanh was the subject of 25% of all Vietnam film reports on weekday TV evening network shows, for CBS the figure was 50%. The base caught the head lines of New York Times on 17 out of 60 days, for the Washington Post it was 13 out of 60, and for Associated Press it was 12 out of 60. Pictures of Khe Sanh accounted for 18% of all Vietnam pictures for the New York Times and the Washington Post, and 38% of AP's Vietnam stories was about the marine compound.
This has lead me to form the following question which will be the basis of my paper.
"How and why did the American news media report and interpret the Tet Offensive and the Siege of Khe Sanh the way they did?"
In order to answer this question I have divided the paper up into two chapters; both chapters will follow a chronological analysis and fact presentation form. The first chapter will deal with the military reality of the Tet Offensive and the Siege of Khe Sanh; the background to the Tet crisis, the day to day events and the ebb and flow of the siege etc. This chapter will serve as a background to chapter two, which will deal with the news media. Here I will examine and explain the performance of America's major press and television organizations who operated under conditions of unusual stress, complexity and uncertainty which prevailed in Vietnam and Washington during the Tet crisis.
Chapter 1. The Siege of Khe Sanh in the eyes of the American policymakers in Saigon and Washington.
On April 24, 1967 Lieutenant Sauer's platoon suddenly made contact with enemy elements of the 325 NVA Division in the hills surrounding the Marine base at Khe Sanh. Unknown to the Marines at the time this was the beginning of the first battle for Khe Sanh. Over the course of the next couple of weeks, heavy fighting would take place in the hill surrounding the base. What really made a difference in these vicious hill battles was an overwhelming amount of artillery and air sorties fired and flown against the enemy positions.
The first battle of Khe Sanh alerted the U.S. Commander of all American forces in Vietnam William C. Westmoreland and MACV (Military Assistance Command Vietnam) to what they perceived as a threat against Khe Sanh and the two northern provinces. When the "Border Battles" commenced, Westmoreland, MACV and personnel in Washington believed that the Communists had changed their strategy and that these battles constituted the opening round of a concentrated offensive effort with the ultimate goal of inflicting on the Americans a new Dien Bien Phu at Khe Sanh and at the same time taking the two northern provinces as leverage in peace negotiations, which would follow such a defeat. They did not believe that Khe Sanh was a feint but thought that the logical thing would be to stage a diversion elsewhere.
From November intelligence reports started coming in, with increased frequency, that reported an enemy build up along the Laotian border near Khe Sanh, and additionally there were signs thapt the enemy in general in the rest of South Vietnam were getting into position for something big. Plans were made in Saigon and subsequently approved in Washington; it was agreed sometime in early December that there were to be a battle at Khe Sanh. It was the verdict from Saigon that since the base was away from populated centres US firepower could thus be concentrated there with less fear of civilian casualties. Additionally the Saigon government was not active in the area making it an American operation and most importantly the enemy seemed interested in the area. Westmoreland hoped that he by destroying the main NVA (North Vietnamese Army) body of troops around the DMZ would clear the way for Operation El Paso at a later time.
The tactics chosen was to allow the VCA to surround the Marine base, and then kill of the enemy through vastly superior firepower. "Our entire philosophy is to allow the enemy to surround us closely, to mass about us, to reveal his troop and logistical routes, to establish his dumps and assembly areas, and to prepare his siege works as energetically as he desires." The result would be the unleashing of one of the most intense displays of American firepower in Vietnam. A SLAM operation (an acronym for seeking, locating, annihilating and monitoring) was planned for the coordination of all available firepower at Khe Sanh. Westmoreland code-named it Operation Niagara, a name chosen by Westmoreland for the image it presented of cascading bombs and shells. The operation would have two phases, Niagara I was the comprehensive intelligence effort to pinpoint the available targets which began on January 6. Niagara II was the second phase and this was the coordinated shelling and bombing of these targets with all available air and artillery assets, which began on January 21, the same day the Communists began their shelling of the Marine base.
Beside the artillery at the base Khe Sanh was given top priority claim to all US air assets in Southeast Asia. The Marine and Air Force fighter-bombers would provide support from bases in South Vietnam, while the Navy would fly sorties from aircraft carriers in the South China Sea. Huge B-52 Strato-fortresses would come from Guam, Thailand and Okinawa. During February 77% of all Navy sorties planned against North Vietnam for Operation Rolling Thunder was redirected to targets around Khe Sanh. During the siege US forces would spent munitions on a unprecedented scale; marine and army artillery would fire 158.891 shells during the siege, more than ten times as much as they received by enemy artillery. But the real difference maker was the aerial bombardment, all in all almost 100.000 tons of aerial munitions were expended during the siege or in other words five tons of bombs for every one of the 20.000 enemy soldiers initially estimated to have been fighting at Khe Sanh.
But all this was for the future, right now the base needed reinforcements along with the whole of I Corps. On December 13, the 3rd Battalion of the 26th Marines was sent to the base as a reaction to intelligence of the enemy build-up in the area and in January three more Marine and one Ranger battalion was airlifted to the base bringing the total up to 6.053 men. That the enemy was out there and interested in the place was clear to everyone; this was further established when a notable incident took place. After nightfall January 2, a sentry alerted a fellow marine to some activity nearby. A squad of Marines sent to investigate saw six men in uniforms, when challenged in English however they did not respond, after a second challenge one of the men made a move as if going for a hand grenade. The Marines opened fire killing five of the six, which the morning after proved to be high ranking NVA officers, including a regimental commander. Here was clear proof these men would not have come so close if their intentions weren’t serious.
Because of this incident the Joint Chiefs of Staff (on Johnson’s behalf) wrote to Westmoreland on January 11, asking if he thought that an attack against Khe Sanh could be pre-empted by an offensive into Laos or forestalled by withdrawal of the Marines. By this time however an invasion was out of the question, a withdrawal was also not feasible, and to relinquish this area Westmoreland said would be a major propaganda victory for the enemy. Everything indicated that there would be a battle.
Skirmishes commenced when enemy artillery shells began raining down over Hill 861 on January 21, half an hour after the barrage had commenced it was followed by a frontal attack of some 250 NVA soldiers led by the North Vietnamese elite combat engineers the Dac Cong advancing under extremely heavy artillery fire. After four hours of bitter fighting, sometimes hand-to-hand, the hill was finally cleared by the Marines. Shortly after this attack had finished a new barrage was opened up against the main base this time, hitting among other things the main ammunition dump thereby destroying 98% of the bases artillery stock. An incident captured on camera by photographer Robert Ellison.
After the first day of heavy fighting, the valley of Khe Sanh settled down to an eerie quiet wait, except for some minor probes and artillery duels nothing were to happen in the days to come. Then on January 31, the Tet Offensive began and all hell broke loose, not at Khe Sanh as had been expected but all over the rests of the country. It was a major surprise that severely shook the confidence of all military and political leaders involved, the shear audacity of the North Vietnamese was perfectly exemplified by the raid that took place at the American Embassy in Saigon. Here a Viet Cong suicide squad seized control of part of the embassy compound and held it for the better part of six hours before finally being killed or captured. In all 36 of 44 provincial capitals and 5 of the 6 major cities were attacked.
While the shock of the Tet attacks was still lingering it was decided that all preparatory and precautionary measures had been taken at Khe Sanh and that with the airpower available the place should be defended no matter what. General Wheeler, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff did however recommend that an extra squadron of C-130 aircrafts should be put on immediate alert and at the same time an acceleration of the issue of M-16 rifles, M-60 machine guns and M-29 mortars to ARVN units should take place across the country.
As the Tet Offensive raged all across the country, Khe Sanh was about to heat up again. On February 4, Hill 861 Alpha was hit by mortar, rockets and artillery fire followed by a ground attack by some 200-300 enemy troops. They succeeded in penetrating the defensive wire and it came to vicious close quarter combat and short range hand-grenade duels before the NVA were finally beaten back. The on February 6, the NVA made a light ground attack on Hill 861 while at the same time using tanks for the first time and flamethrowers they attacked the Green Berets at the Special Forces Camp at Lang Vei. All through the night the night the fight raged back and forth, when morning came it was thought that the camp had been overrun. However there were still a small bunch of Berets holed up in a bunker refusing to surrender; when the opportunity presented itself they snuck away to freedom and the camp was declared lost for good later that day. The evening after the fall of Lang Vei would see another ground attack by the NVA against an outpost, again they succeeded in penetrating the wire but they were ultimately repulsed.
 Ford, R.E.: Tet 1968: Understanding the Surprise (Frank Cass and Co. LTD, 1995), page 91 and Guan, A.C.: "Khe Sanh - from the Perspective of the North Vietnamese Communists" in War in History. Vol.8, no.1, 2001, page 90.
 Westmoreland, W. C. A Soldier Reports (New York, Doubleday & Company, Inc. 1976), page 337-338 and Ford, Tet 1968, page 108.
 Braestrup, P. Big Story: How the American Press and Television Reported and Interpreted the Crisis of Tet 1968 in Vietnam and Washington (London, Yale University Press 1978), page 513.
 Braestrup, Big Story, page 257.
 Westmoreland, A Soldier Reports, page 313.
 Prados, J. "The Warning that left something to Chance: Intelligence at Tet." in The Tet Offensive ed. by Gilbert, M. J. & Head, W. (Praeger Publishers, 1996), page 144ff.
 Prados, J. & Stubbe, R. W. Valley of Decision: The Siege of Khe Sanh (New York, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1991), page 198. Operation El Paso was planned as an invasion of Laos to clear the Ho Chi Minh trail. It was never executed.
 Brush, P. "The Battle of Khe Sanh." In The Tet Offensive ed. by Gilbert, M. J. & Head, W. (Praeger Publishers, 1996), page 196.
 Brush, P. "Operation Niagara" in Vietnam Magazine (December, 1999), page 1.
 Brush, Operation Niagara, page 1ff.
 Brush, Operation Niagara, page 3-4.
 Pisor, R. The End of the Line: The Siege of Khe Sanh. (New York, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 1982), page 246-247 and Brush, Operation Niagara, page 4-7.
 Marino, J.L. "Strategic Crossroads at Khe Sanh" in Vietnam Magazine (December, 1999), page 6-7.
 Westmoreland, A Soldier Reports, page 314-315.
 Westmoreland, A Soldier Reports, page 315.
 Allison, W.T. The Tet Offensive: A Brief History with Documents (Taylor & Francis, 2008), page 144-145.
 Porter, G. ed. Vietnam: The Definitive Documentation of Human Decisions. Vol. 2. (Heyden and Son Ltd. Spectrum House, 1979), page 495-497 and 501. and Allison, The Tet Offensive, page 158-160.
- Quote paper
- Martin Lausten (Author), 2015, The siege of Khe Sanh. An extreme case of crisis journalism?, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/324267