61. Letter From the Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps (Walt) to the President’s Special Assistant (Rostow)1
Dear Mr. Rostow:
Last evening at the McNamaras you asked if I would give you my personal opinion as to the situation at Khe Sanh, and also the defensibility of the Khe Sanh area.2
First, let me say that I left South Vietnam on 1 June 1967 and have not returned since. I knew the ground defenses at Khe Sanh as they were at that time but since then many changes have been made. We have three times as many Marines there now and I cannot speak as to the details of their fortifications or the disposition of the troops.
I did feel then, and I do now, that the combat base is of extreme importance to us, both from the psychological and military points of view. I believe the psychological is obvious because of the nature of the war. Militarily, Khe Sanh is the northwest anchor for the entire Quang Tri-Thua Thien defense sector. Its loss would allow the enemy to close in on the Camp Carroll-Dong Ha-Quang Tri City areas to our serious discomfort. To the enemy, Khe Sanh lies at the junction of several natural routes of infiltration into South Vietnam from Laos to the West and North Vietnam itself. Our location denies him easy access to these routes, and forces him to take the long way around. Lastly, Khe Sanh, as you know, serves as a base for certain of our specialized operations in the general area. The maps which we have provided your office portray rather vividly the terrain implications in the area.
In short, Khe Sanh is tactically vital to us, in addition to the psychological factors which would beset us were we to evacuate it.
I am sure that the Lang Vei evacuation assumes significant importance to you.3 A couple of points are significant here. First, Lang Vei, like all the Special Forces camps, has a mission to provide security in the local area, to conduct reconnaissance, and to train and employ indigenous para-military people who are locally recruited. It did not have the mission to serve as a conventional outpost for the defense of Khe Sanh [Page 146] against large organized enemy formations. Significant also may be the perhaps forgotten concept of Special Forces camps—they were initially conceived as a mechanism which would recruit and employ persons who might otherwise be recruited by the other side. Only after we had had them on the payroll for a period of time did their other missions evolve.
Returning to Khe Sanh proper, all indications point to an attack on Khe Sanh in force, and soon. We can expect simultaneous efforts against Camp Carroll, Con Thien, Dong Ha, and Gio Linh, by fire at least and potentially by ground troops as well. Additionally, we can expect rocket/mortar attacks against Danang, Phu Bai and Chu Lai. The form of the attack against Khe Sanh itself will most probably come from the north, with probable diversionary effort from the west along Route 9. I base this probability on the nature of the terrain north of the base which provides the enemy more cover, which in turn permits him to move his supplies closer to the base and which subjects his troops to our supporting fires for a shorter time and over shorter distances.
I hope the foregoing may prove helpful. Rest assured that I share the assurance which the Joint Chiefs of Staff and others have expressed in our capability to retain our hold in the Khe Sanh area. Our 6,000 Marines there will insure this.
- Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vietnam, 2 A (2) [2 of 2], I Cor and DMZ, 2/68. Secret.↩
- In the immediate area of Khe Sanh, 5,700 Marines and 500 ARVN Rangers faced an opposing force of 25,000.↩
- Ten Americans and 200 civilian irregulars were evacuated by helicopter later that day.↩