12. Memorandum From the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Wheeler) to Secretary of Defense McNamara 1



  • Khe Sanh (U)

Recently, two differing views of the situation in the Khe Sanh area came to my attention. Briefly, these are: (1) preempting an enemy assault in the Khe Sanh area by an offensive into Laos; (2) a complete withdrawal from Khe Sanh. I do not personally subscribe to either of these views, both of which overlook important factors. However, since these two propositions have reportedly been given prominent attention at high non-military levels, I considered that it would be useful to have General Westmoreland’s comments on them and on the Khe Sanh situation in general.2 I have now received his comments and I provide them to you, in the succeeding paragraphs, for your information.

  • “1. I have just returned from a visit with General Cushman during which we discussed contingency plans for reinforcing Khe Sanh and the I Corps Tactical Zone (CTZ). General Cushman has two USMC battalions in Khe Sanh now and contingency plans for augmenting this force with an additional USMC battalion on eight hour notice, followed by a second battalion on twelve hour notice, and by SLF forces. Additionally, and as a result of the above discussion, I have directed him as a matter [Page 31] of first priority to alert a brigade of the Americal Division to move into the Hue/Phu Bai area. This can be done quickly with fixed wing or rotary wing aircraft.
  • “2. As a second priority we are prepared to reinforce I CTZ in the Hue/Phu Bai, Danang, or Chu Lai areas in that priority with another brigade, either from the 101st Airborne Division or from the 1st Cavalry Division.
  • “3. Additional actions underway include the following:
    • “a. As the ROK Marine Brigade moves into the Danang tactical area of responsibility (TAOR), elements of the 1st Marine Division are being released for deployment north of Ai-Van pass. This in turn is releasing elements of the 3d Marine Division for movement into Quang Tri province. Two battalions of the ROK Marine Brigade have completed their movement and four battalions of the 1st Marine Division are now north of Ai-Van pass. This move will be completed by 31 January with four ROK battalions in the Danang TAOR and five 1st Marine Division battalions north of the pass.
    • “b. The JGS has agreed to deploy a task force of two airborne battalions to I CTZ on or about 15 January 1968, bringing to four the number of ARVN airborne battalions in I CTZ.
    • “c. We are developing priority targets in Operation Niagara3 for a sustained Arc Light campaign, augmented by tactical air, beginning not later than 18 January. We plan to concentrate on targets in RVN prior to Tet with approximately 75 percent or more of our total effort. During and following the Tet cease fire, we will strike targets in Laos. This operation also includes a slam type operation in the Khe Sanh area by 7th Air Force. In conjunction with our sustained Arc Light campaign, I am requesting (by separate communication) a further step up in the B–52 accelerated program now scheduled to begin 20 January.
    • “d. We are also requesting that a carrier be alerted to be brought in to augment tactical air, and the prompt return of the SLF for commitment to either the 3d or 1st Marine Division areas.
    • “e. Maximum number of NGF support ships will be concentrated in the I CTZ.
  • “4. Regarding view (1), above, my concept for operations in Laos is outlined in Operation El Paso, proposed for October 1968. Preempting a Khe Sanh area assault by an offensive into Laos is neither logistically nor tactically feasible at this time. Significant considerations include the following: [Page 32]
    • “a. To be effective, a Laotian assault should be launched in the near future.
    • “b. With the NE monsoon upon us, launching and supporting the magnitude of force envisioned is not within our current capability. An air LOC is essential and flying weather is marginal. Additionally, our airlift capabilities are inadequate to support both this concept and an acceptable tactical posture in other RVN threat areas at this time.
    • “c. We estimate sizable enemy forces to be in the Tchepone area and to the north thereof; thus a brief successful campaign there may not be possible.
  • “5. Regarding a withdrawal from Khe Sanh, I consider this area critical to us from a tactical standpoint as a launch base for Special Operations Group (SOG) teams and as flank security for the strong point obstacle system; it is even more critical from a psychological viewpoint. To relinquish this area would be a major propaganda victory for the enemy. Its loss would seriously affect Vietnamese and US morale. In short, withdrawal would be a tremendous step backwards.
  • “6. Although there are some in non-military circles who favor the concept of retreating into enclaves, I must reiterate that such a strategy merely returns the center of violence to the midst of the RVN people in the populated centers. On the other hand, a massive assault into Laos is not feasible in the near time frame.
  • “7. In view of the enemy capability to initiate a major offensive in Quang Tri province before Tet, I would prefer to defend with force deployment and combat support as indicated above. I will submit additional support requirements separately for Arc Light, Carrier and NGF support.”
Earle G. Wheeler

Joint Chiefs of Staff
  1. Source: Washington National Records Center, Department of Defense, OSD Files: FRC 330 73 A 1304, 1968 Files, VIET 385. Top Secret. A stamped notation on the memorandum indicates that McNamara saw it on January 15. According to a January 8 memorandum from Carver to Helms, entitled “The Enemy Threat to Khe Sanh, A Speculative Appraisal,” intelligence reports indicated that elements from four NVA divisions had been moved into the area around Khe Sanh in preparation for an attack. The memorandum concluded that the enemy’s objectives were, at a minimum, to force abandonment of the base and, at a maximum, “to draw substantial U.S. reinforcements from other areas in South Vietnam and tie them down in the Khe Sanh area.” (Central Intelligence Agency, Executive Registry Subject Files, Job 80–R01284A, DCI/ER Files, ER Files-Special Material 01 Jan-28 Feb 1968)
  2. In telegram JCS 343, January 11, Wheeler requested Westmoreland’s views on each option. The first was phrased as “the possibility of turning an attack against the Khe Sanh to our advantage, that is, Dien Bien Phu in reverse. This view argues the possibility of capitalizing on an attack against Khe Sanh by striking the enemy from the rear in Laos and proceeding to attack enemy bases in the area, perhaps as far west as Tchepone, in a relatively short campaign.” The second was phrased as “withdrawal from Khe Sanh because the enemy is building toward a Dien Bien Phu. This argument is based upon the following premises: A. The Road to Khe Sanh has been cut. B. We do not control the commanding hills. C. The enemy is bringing up artillery which will be able to control the airfield. D. A withdrawal now could be done without much public notice. E. There is an awkward relationship between COMUSMACV and the Marine commander which makes the Marines reluctant to withdraw and COMUSMACV reluctant to direct them to do so.” (Johnson Library, William C. Westmoreland Papers, Eyes Only Message File, 1 Jan.–31 Jan. 1968)
  3. A clearing operation involving bombing and artillery shelling of enemy positions around Khe Sanh.